The Accidental Origin Story Of The Tuna Melt

The tuna melt must be a crowd-favorite considering it can be spotted on many menus across America. The elevated sandwich is an extravagant take on a can of tuna and has been adapted hundreds of ways since it was popularized in the 1960s. The simple combination of tuna and cheese prompted an everlasting food marriage that even measures up to peanut butter and jelly. 

Long before it got its classic cheesy blanket, tuna salad sandwiches were already one of the most popular lunches. Budget-conscious folks would gravitate towards "salads" made of a leftover protein (often bits of fish) and various add-ins to bulk up their meals as well as stretch a dollar even further (via The Smithsonian). Once canned tuna reached storefronts, it quickly became a pantry staple. According to The Washington Post, tuna remained the top seafood in the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century, with the majority of Americans always keeping a can of it on hand. Tuna sandwiches may be tasty, but adding a melty cheese can take it a notch higher. Surprisingly, the tuna melt we all know and love wasn't made with intention. In fact, it was a total fluke.

The tasty sandwich was a happy accident

While we may credit the invention of the tuna melt to a lunch counter cook, perhaps we really have gravity to thank for the classic sandwich. NYT Cooking shares the supposed origin story, which allegedly took place at a Woolworth's department store in Charleston, S.C. A cook at the store's lunch counter was busy whipping up orders when a mess of tuna fell on top of a grilled cheese sandwich. Rather than cleaning it up, the cook discovered the magic of these two flavor combinations. With that, the iconic tuna melt was born.

It didn't take long for the simple and delicious sandwich to make its way around the globe. Bloomberg points out the convenience and accessibility of the tuna melt as it doesn't rely on fresh produce or meat, dubbing it, "[One] of the most supermarket-driven of sandwiches." Today, chefs zhuzh up their tuna melt sandwich recipes with anything from curry to artichokes (per Food & Wine) or by making it as a panini. Some people always reach for a tried-and-true can of the fish while others, like Ina Garten, swear by imported tuna for melts. There are plenty of mix-ins that can upgrade a tuna melt but some components just can't be beat. A grilled sandwich of tuna, celery, a generous amount of mayonnaise, with a veil of gooey cheese is just about as classic as it gets.