Saturday, February 14, 2009

In Praise of Tuna Fish

Why, you might ask, after several posts discussing the serious neurological illness Lewy Body Dementia and the ways in which my life and been inspired and enriched by the life and legacies of Abraham Lincoln, would I next turn to the subject of tuna fish?

It's a fair question.

Earlier today, I donated blood. In the past when I've donated blood, lying on a rickety green cot with a needle in my arm, drawing my precious plasma through tubing into a plastic pouch while I squeeze a plastic dowel in 10-second intervals, I've been terribly bored. Giving blood takes longer than it should considering how great the need for donated blood is these days. My appointment today took nearly two hours. Anyway, the point is that I wanted to bring a book with me to read while vital fluid dripped out of me.

And I didn't want to bring one of my current reads because my reading would be interrupted by nurses, I would be near staining iodine and blood, and I would be in a most uncomfortable reading position: lying prone with my head raised only a couple of inches, having to hold and turn the pages of the book with just my left hand. So I looked for a small paperback that I wouldn't mind reading just 30 or 40 pages of and not needing to continue after the appointment was over.

The book I chose was Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. My wife had actually given me this book for my birthday a few years ago, but after leafing through it, I thought, "I don't need this, this is for people who want to be writers, not for real writers like me." Lamott is a published author (two memoirs and a number of novels), recipient of a Guggenheim, two-time magazine columnist, and has taught writing at the university level. Surely, I thought, there's nothing she can teach me.

Well, for whatever reason I decided to take this book with me to the bloodletting. And I have to say that once I got past the introduction and the opening chapter ("Getting Started"), which really did cover ground I trod long before, she began to be more interesting to me. The third chapter, for example, is titled "Shitty First Drafts," which is something I can relate to. But it was chapter five that intrigued me. It's called "School Lunches." The idea is to spend half an hour writing about how our mothers nourished us in elementary school, as a means of delving into childhood memories that may on the surface seem banal but on closer inspection possess threads of status, shame, self-consciousness, and even sardines, which I'll get to soon. Anyway, it seemed like an interesting exercise and so I thought I'd try it out here.

Mind you, what follows is just me writing about the subject at hand; I did not jot down any notes or write out a previous draft. What follows is basically a shitty first draft. Ms. Lamott, I hope you're satisfied.

In Praise of Tuna Fish
I entered grade school at age five; in the ensuing 41 years, I've had a lot of lunches. Those that occurred in the Monday through Friday routine of school and later work have generally been eaten in full view of my peers and anyone from my past, classmates and colleagues all, can vouch for this one simple fact about me: I really like tuna fish.

I don't know what it is about tuna, but it works for me. Sure, I've had the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich (now practically a crime to possess one within 50 yards of a school), even bologna, salami, turkey, and that disgustingly marvelous concoction known as egg salad (the only other food I classify as disgustingly marvelous are Circus Peanuts, those orange things that purport to be from the marshmallow family), but tuna fish has always been my number one lunch food. I'm not sure if I demanded it be so or whether my mother just thought it was easiest to make, but however it came to be, I estimate that tuna fish has been part of probably 80% of all the school and work lunches I've had in my life.

Might as well get the preferred recipe out of the way. First, you start with white tuna, which isn't really white. Light tuna, which is darker than white, is cat food. As such, it is not a suitable substitute. Next most important is the binding agent. Only Miracle Whip will do. Though technically a salad dressing and not a mayonnaise, Miracle Whip adds an irresistible sweetness that I demand. I will if need be go with mayo, but Miracle Whip is a very strong preference. Adding a little sweet relish to the mix is a nice touch but not really necessary. Ditto chopped celery, though it adds a nice crunch. Finally, the bread. As a youngster, only snuggly soft white bread would do. These days, any good bread is desirable; in most cases these days, I simply top a green salad with a dollop of tuna for a nice low-carb lunch.

But wait, we're not done. There's a secret ingredient to any classic tuna fish sandwich. You may say I'm disgusting but I'm not the only one. I know other people who have done this as well. If you've never had the pleasure, you must try it. To your sandwich add potato chips. Not on the side. In the sandwich. Atop the tuna. Between the bread. A nice layer of crispy chips. It adds not only the nice crunch I mentioned before, but also an extra helping of carbs, which all kids crave.

OK, so that's the recipe. So why do I like it so much? I have no idea. The best I can think of is that it's everything peanut butter isn't: it's cold and wet. It's a wonderful texture and a tremendous source of protein. The only thing I don't like so much is opening and draining the cans. When my cat was alive I'd pour the water (yes, water, not oil; that stuff's nasty) into a dish for her. Now my wife makes me grind a slice of lemon in the disposer so the sink drain doesn't smell like fish.

As a kid, no one ever commented about my love of tuna. As an adult, my colleagues are sure I'm going to get mercury poisoning. As a parent, I now have to make lunches for my 12-year-old daughter. To my deep disappointment, she hates tuna fish. In fact, she's never had tuna fish. Not once. But she thinks it's gross so she won't try it. Think how much joy it would give me to make a great big bowl of tuna and provide it as a midday repast for both me and my darling daughter. I tell her it's not at all gross. Gross was the sardines that John Collins used to bring in for snack. He'd lean his head back and drop those stinking oily bastards down his throat like he was both sea lion and trainer in one. In contrast, my tuna/Miracle Whip/potato chip/white bread sandwich was refined and gourmet. But she won't have any of it.

Oh well, that's her loss. For me, that little three-ounce tin of delight is what lunch is all about. And I can't wait until my next one.

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