by Warren Bobrow
An abridged history of the Tuna Melt:
Charleston, South Carolina. About 1965. Woolworth’s lunch counter on King Street. The air is thick with the smell of tea being brewed for the large glass containers that sit atop ceramic dispensers. Inside the containers are chunks of rough-cut ice, fresh mint and golden brown-colored tea.
One container says simply, Sweet. As quickly as a glass is filled, it is emptied by thirsty passers-by. All of King Street finds their way in for a cup. Sweet Tea is the most popular drink on a day like today.
It’s July and hamburgers are sizzling away on the sleek metal of the grill. The sun seems to rise low in the sky earlier and set later, extending the heat and mud-scented humidity from the tidal confluence of Ashley and Cooper Rivers.
Behind the counter, the ladies work at their prescribed tasks. Send a Tuna on White over there, cup of Tomato Soup to the end of the counter! Macaroni and Cheese with a Fish Cake? Side of Slaw!
Chef Bo is greeted; orders given. “Sweet tea! ‘ll have a grilled cheese sandwich, white bread with a smear of mayo and slices of American cheese, “just as you like it”. Atop the griddle on a shelf, a bowl of freshly made tuna salad sits on the edge… and, as if guided by a hidden hand, the contents tip over, falling on the grilled cheese sandwich. Voila! The Tuna Melt is born!
About the same time as the tuna salad falls onto the grill, Bo notices it bubbling away along with his open-faced grilled cheese. Some of the tuna has coated the top. The smell is familiar to him. The metallic tang of nearby sweet southern ocean air, the syrupy caramelized smell of mayo combining and dripping on celery and onion sinking into the butter and mayo-coated white bread. And on top, becoming crisp and sealing in all the flavors… that errant dolloop of tuna!
One of the gals from behind the counter offers to make Bo another one, ’cause he might not want to eat the mistake!”
Tucking in-carefully at first, then with fervor – time and history make way for a new sandwich, a new invention. Pursing his lips and sipping the sweet tea Bo has no idea that he has invented the Tuna Melt.
Soon, thereafter, the Tuna Melt became a favorite at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on King Street in Charleston, South Carolina. It was almost always served with a glass of sweet Iced Tea and a side of potato chips.
Follow Warren Bobrow on Twitter: WarrenBobrow1
Warren Bobrow writes about food, wine and culture. Wild Snack will appear every Wednesday in Wild River Review.