Why We Love Canned Tuna

Saveur Magazine


October 1, 2003

Colman Andrews

A cat can hear a can of cat food being opened from a distance of approximately 500 miles and will show up on the kitchen counter nudging your forearm annoyingly as you scoop the stuff into his bowl even if he was engaged in some sort of feline high jinks in a neighboring state only seconds before.

I'm sort of like that with canned tuna. I hear the sharpened wheel of a can opener sinking into the lid with a faint but unmistakable crunch and a little gasp of inrushing air -- it's a high note, not the deeper thunk that comes forth when a can of soup or beans is opened, so unless somebody's serving up some of that aforementioned food, I'm always pretty sure that it's tuna -- and I'm there in a flash, gazing with intense anticipatory pleasure at the solid, faintly luminous white-beige meat luxuriating in a rich, shiny cloak of olive oil that the opening of the can has revealed. And already imagining that meat, which i my kitchen is usually (though not always) Thunnus alalunga, or albacore, being mashed into tuna salad or broken coarsely into chunks to be stirred into a bowl of white beans or...And then picturing myself wiping up the scraps of fish left in the oil at the bottom of the can with my finger and putting it straight into my mouth.

I'm dating myself here: most tuna is now packed in water, not oil, and a lot of it seems to come in pop-top cans -- if not metal pouches. And of course there are people who think that canned tuna is cat food, disdaining it in favor of beefy slabs of the fresh variety -- ahi or otherwise, raw or "charred rare." But I'm here to maintain that canned tuna -- almost any kind, but especially albacore packed in olive oil (most of which comes from Italy, France, or Spain and costs big bucks) and above all the kind known as ventresca or ventreche, which is the exquisite, fatty belly meat of the tuna -- is one of the great gastronomic pleasures of everyday life.

The genus Thunnus comprises several varieties of fast-swimming, muscular, particularly delicious members of the family Scombridae, found all over the Atlantic and the Pacific and in the Mediterranean. The tunas we know best, besides the aristocratic albacore (the only one that may be labeled "white tuna"), are the bluefin (T. thynnus or T. maccoyii), star of the sushi counter; the yellowfin (T. albacares), which is ahi in Hawaii and i our smarter non-Hawaiian eating establishments; and the skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), a Thunnus cousin, which is the mainstay of the American canning industry. (Bonito is another cousin, but unlike skipjack it isn't labeled as tuna; the Spanish, though, call albacore "bonito del norte," which means either the good-looking guy from the north or "That'll be 20 euros, please.")

There was a time not very long ago in America when almost nobody, your odd fisherperson aside, ate fresh tuna. It was rare even in sushi bars and simply didn't exist in supermarkets or on the menu at Arugula's; A Small-Plates-Fusion Bistro fown at the Hyatt. In fact, fresh tuna has always been something of a rare bird. It was a large fish, found in abundance so the ancients had to figure our early how to preserve it in various ways. You might have eaten a bit of it fresh when it was first caught if you lived on the coast; otherwise you got your tuna salted, dried, smoked, pickled, and even "canned" in amphorae, in oil or vinegar.

The pioneer of nonamphoral canning was a Frenchman, Nicolas Appert, who figured out in the late 18th century how to preserve food in airtight bottles. The first American cannery was established in New York in 1812, packing oysters, among other foods, first in glass and then in tin -- and by the early 20th century, the canning of fish had become a burgeoning industry in this country. In 1903, when the annual run of Pacific sardines didn't show up as scheduled in Southern California, canner Albert P. Halfhill had his workers pack tuna instead -- and lnch as we kniw it was born. Today, U.S. canners alone (the big boys are StarKist, BumbleBee, and the metaphorically monikered Chicken of the Sea) pack some 32 billion cans of tuna annually, mostly in two styles -- solid or fancy (large pieces) and chunk (smaller pieces) -- and canned tuna accounts for almost a third of our national seafood consumption.

This is largely, I'd bet, because tuna cans so very nicely. Canned peas are mush; canned peaches are slippery and metallic; canned salmon tastes like the fresh stuff after it's been boiled for about three days. But when you pack tuna in that coated aluminum or steel container, it becomes another creature altogether. It changes its texture, its flavor, its very nature. It is cooked twice, before and after canning, and this apparently has the effect of solidifying its flesh and converting the mildly gamy character of fresh tuna into something that might better be described as earthy, but with a buttery richness and a vivid piscatorial tang. Canned tuna is not a sorry imitation of the fresh stuff; it is a parallel delight. It is to fresh tunas more or less what ham is to pork chops. Or, perhaps more appropriately, it is the salt cod of the modern world, the preserved version of a cimmon fish, becoming somehow less common through the very process of its preservation -- a dependable, easily stored, long-lived form of protein, as protean as it is savory. And Whiskers had better stay the hell away from mine.

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