They say smell is the oldest of the five senses we humans have. I certainly believe it – There have been times I haven’t smelled a thing in 30 years, and then I do, and I’m instantly taken back. It’s as if the smell is somehow a shortcut to the exact spot in my brain where that memory hides.
I will always remember that hot summer night on Parris Island whenever I smell rotting fruit. I will always think of my Great Aunt’s bathroom when I smell rusting metal. The smell of strawberries instantly transports me into a walk-in cooler in Byhalia, MS, where 16 year old me would hide when I should have been working and would eat the Louisiana strawberries that I should have been putting on the store shelves.
And the smell of hot tuna always transports me back to my momma’s kitchen on a day in 1980: A day I should have been in school, but was home instead, sick.
It was a cold day, and I had been running a fever all night and so Mom let me lay on the couch and watch The Price is Right on TV instead of going to school.
I had dozed off, somewhere before the Showcase Showdown and she gently woke me. The TV was off, and I felt a bit better, and she sat on the couch beside me and asked if I was hungry.
“I’m about to fix some creamed tuna over toast,” she said.
I told her I didn’t know what that was.
“I know. But I love it, and your dad doesn’t – he calls it cat food – and since it’s just us today, I thought I would make some.”
We walked into our small kitchen, and I drug a chair over to the stove, to watch.
She got out a small pan and drained a can of tuna. We only had the kind packed in water, because Dad was watching his cholesterol – and she heated up a can of cream of mushroom soup and stirred in a can’s worth of water, and added the tuna to it while it heated.
In the meantime, she put four slices of bread in our toaster, and when the toast was done, she tore it into small pieces, which she placed in the white Corelle bowls with the small blue flower trim they had gotten as newlyweds. She set them on the oak table that my grandfather rescued from the fire in the 1930s.
She took a serving spoon from the drawer and spooned the tuna mixture over both our bowls and then stirred it well, to coat the chunks of bread with the ersatz roux.
The kitchen did smell vaguely of cat food, to my dad’s point, but not obnoxiously so. At that moment, it just smelled good, and safe.
I still love it – creamed tuna over toast, even if I don’t make it that way anymore. I would learn, later, about bechamel sauce and seasoning and the value of aromatics. But that would all come later.
Mom and I didn’t have a lot of things that were just ours – we still don’t, actually – but our love of creamed tuna over toast was one of them. And to this day, when I don’t feel particularly well, I will make a version of this dish and just know everything is going to be OK.
I want to go on record that there’s nothing wrong with making it the way Mom did. I mean, if you are sick, or have been pulling lots of shifts, or just don’t have a lot of energy, spending 10 minutes dumping two cans into a pot and then pouring it over toasted bread may be all you have the energy for. And if that’s true, then go for it.
But, if you find yourself with 15 minutes and a smidgen more energy, you can make something remarkable. These days, I often make this using chicken, because my wife shares my dad’s feelings about seafood, and I want to keep living here. But you can replace the chicken in this recipe with tuna and it still works.
Everything you will need for this is in your pantry, or at least should be. Bread. Flour. Butter. Some leftover chicken. Salt. Pepper. Chicken broth, An onion. Milk. Love.
Before you get started, let’s talk about chicken. You can use leftover chicken of any sort. White meat. Dark meat. Canned chicken. Leftover rotisserie chicken. Chicken legs you bought on clearance and poached specifically for this dish. It doesn’t matter. Really. They all have different flavor profiles, but they are all good. You will need to shred it up, and you need about two cups of it.
You want to start with two tablespoons of butter, which you put in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.
While it’s melting, take a small onion, and dice it fine. You don’t need a lot of onion, and if I’m feeling fancy and it’s after payday, I would probably use a large shallot for this, and if it’s a few days before payday, I would probably use the 1/2 an onion sitting in the crisper drawer in a ziplock bag leftover from God knows what.
Sweat the onions for about five minutes in the melted butter – don’t let them burn, and this means you may have to reduce the heat. Then put in two tablespoons of flour, and, using your whisk, get the flour coated in the melted butter. Just like when you are making milk gravy, you don’t want this to burn. This is a white sauce, so all you want is the flour and oil to be mixed well.
Slowly add a cup of half and half, a 1/4 cup or so at a time, whisking all the while, until it’s all mixed in. Then do the same with the chicken broth – add it slowly, while whisking, until it is a lovely velvety smooth, and probably slightly yellow. That color is one of my favorite colors. The smell right now is something else, too.
If you are feeling fancy, this is where you throw in about half a cup of what we called English peas, and you probably call green peas or sweet peas. Little green round peas, preferably frozen, is what we’re going for here. And then add the chicken, stirring it all in, so the lovely creamy sauce covers the chicken and peas, and the peas look like little green islands in a light yellow sea.
You want this to simmer for about 5 minutes, to both warm up the peas and chicken, and to thicken the sauce. If it gets too thick, you can drizzle in a bit of hot water while stirring, and also remember that it will thicken a bit as it sits and cools.
While the sauce is simmering, start making toast – two to three slices per person is about right. When the toast is done, I like to rip it into rough chunks about 2 inches square. Then pour a generous half cup of sauce over the top, and if you have any, sprinkle the top with fresh chopped parsley.
This is one of my favorite meals. There are variations galore. This will serve two hungry people or 4 polite ones, but it scales up perfectly – 2 tablespoons of fat and flour per cup of broth and cup of dairy.
This is also lovely over biscuits, served like you would sausage gravy, or over plain white rice, which is how I serve it for supper or when company would show up unexpectedly in the before times.
Go buck wild and use whipping cream or half and half if you are a generally optimistic person, but whole milk is what I use most often. Some of you are scared of your food and will be tempted to use skim milk, and while I would discourage you, I can’t stop you.
Some people, I have learned, just want to watch the world burn.