This is a hard story to relate, although it is one of my favorites, because the dish I am about to describe is a cherished favorite of someone that I like and respect. It is his food of love. The food that greeted him on a winter day when he came in from sleigh riding or a backyard football game in the fall. It is what Mom served him and is imprinted on his brain. It is what says home and comfort and safety. It is the product of a generation who were taught that processed, canned and branded products represented quality. It came from a time of slick advertising and glamorous spreads in colorful magazines of smiling housewives presenting colorful meals to adoring families that took no time at all to prepare. Block of ice to boeuf bourguignon in 8 seconds. A product of the kitchen of tomorrow. This dish is the bastard cousin of the green bean casserole from the back of the cream of mushroom can. It came from the mind of a marketing guy who was trying to cobble together a dish that contained nothing but Kraft products, and nothing fresh to burden the overworked housewife. The only utensils necessary are a spoon and a can opener. No preparation required other than applying heat to a few cans and voila, a delicious well balanced meal!
I was introduced to this mutation back in my college days. Even as a young man I was a pretty good cook and prepared a lot of meals. I came downstairs and my housemate, who will remain nameless for the purposes of this post, was cooking away at the stove. “Alan, you are always cooking for me, let me share my favorite dish with you.” How does one refuse a request like that? As I looked over his shoulder I saw a can of tuna in oil, undrained (the oil is where the flavor is), going into a medium saucepan. Joining that was a can of standard Andy Warhol cream of mushroom soup, undiluted. As these two ingredients began to bubble away he prepared some white toast which was given a light coating of creamy peanut butter. The peanut butter toast was topped with a large mound of canned shoestring potatoes and this noble base was mounted with the steaming tuna and cream of mushroom soup. Not wanting to be rude I accepted a fork and dug in as he watched my face expectantly to see if I approved of his gastronomic creation. The first bite was very hard to get down but I smiled and nodded approvingly to hide my gag reflex. As my roommate tucked in I got a second mouthful down and then had to claim a hangover and excused myself from the room.
The combination of peanut butter toast and shoestring potatoes was a common theme in his house growing up and served as a base for such things as Chun King shrimp chow mein as well, which I politely refused to try on more than one occasion. Over the years this dish has haunted me. Every time I find myself too lazy to cook, peering into the pantry thinking mad scientist thoughts, the tuna-cream-of-mushroom-potato-stick-peanut-butter-toast monster jumps out at me and puts the kibosh on pickled beets and chili on a bed of Ritz crackers. It savagely reminds me that smoked oyster macaroni and cheese made with sweetened condensed milk will likely go straight into the trash. It also scares me away from bamboo shoot, baked bean and ravioli casserole almondine which is probably for the best. There are just some combinations that should not be called into existence.
I have seen the Uncle Fester of food shows, Andrew Zimmern, travel to far off lands and sample the strange dishes of other cultures. I have seen him eat bugs and stinky tofu and testicles from a dozen different animals. I have seen smiling children eat fried bats and rat on a stick and rotten meat and 1000 year old eggs like it was cotton candy and scooter pies. Is that any different than a cream of mushroom tuna surprise on peanut butter toast? I am sure that given the time and training a home cook could make a confit of tuna with a sauce villageoise and serve it over a pommes pailles on a crouton. A great cook might even find a way to sneak peanuts into the dish but with two kids and a husband and a job to boot and the laundry and a rich social life is there really time to cook this kind of a meal for lunch? Maybe a Food TV host from Outer Mongolia will find his way to the American Midwest and alongside the loose meat sandwiches and canned tamales he will report back to his homeland of a strange dish of surpassing excellence. A magical concoction atop peanut butter toast that is not unlike the creamed rat on a stick that his grandmother served him when he was a kid. Eyes welling up with nostalgic tears he devours a double helping while reminiscing about old friends and childhood memories and relatives long gone. I guess with food as with so many other things one man’s gagburger is another man’s food of love.