A Tuna Rarebit Is The Retro Melty Sandwich You Should Try

Many of us hear the words retro and recipe together in a sentence, and it conjures up images of green aspic with brightly-colored, fruit-like ornamentations in layered suspension. The mid-20th century in the U.S. was a time of culinary experimentation, as Americans prioritized war efforts abroad and frugality at home — so innovations around the cheapest foods available ruled the day. These recipes pushed the limits of culinary creativity, and while most would not appeal to a modern diet, some are worth recovering. One such example is tuna rarebit, a creamy, cheesy open-faced tuna sandwich that's as easy to make as it is to devour. 

The foundation of this recipe is sturdy and can be elevated with the right ingredients. You can dress tuna rarebit up with the addition of fresh tomatoes or give it some tang with pickles. Some of us might shudder at the thought of tuna and dairy together, but we say don't knock it until you try it (and definitely try it).

An open-faced history

The tuna rarebit is a take on the well-loved cheese-on-toast concoction known as the Welsh rabbit, or "rarebit" that was popularized during the American Revolution. Welsh rarebit dates back to the 16th century, and despite its name, does not involve rabbits of any kind. Legend suggests that rarebit was an alternate spelling for rabbit, and was a joke at the expense of the lower-class Welsh, who couldn't afford meat. Colonists brought the humble dish over from the British Isles and have been enjoying cheese on toast and its many variations ever since.

Tuna rarebit may be a precursor to the tuna melt, which first appeared on a Charleston lunch counter in the 1960s when a Woolworth's fry cook dumped a container of tuna salad onto a grilled cheese sandwich, making culinary history in the process. The two are actually quite similar dishes, but the tuna rarebit appears to have beat the melt to the punch by about a decade. 

How to make tuna rarebit

So what differentiates these two dishes? Mostly the way it's prepared. Where a tuna melt just lays cheese over the top of the tuna mixture and broils it, a rarebit takes a little more finessing. Because of the delicate nature of the dairy included, the wet mixture for the rarebit needs to be prepared in a double boiler or bain-marie. There, combine milk, butter, and grated (or thinly sliced) cheese of your choosing into a double boiler and heat until the cheese has melted. 

Butter your slices of bread (a hearty loaf like rye or whole grain works best) and toast them under a broiler; this will only take a couple of minutes. Once the milk, butter, and cheese have come together, add your favorite canned tuna and incorporate it gently into the mixture. Spoon the rarebit mixture onto the toasted bread and garnish with a little bit of hot sauce or parsley. Time to enjoy a *rare bit* of history.