The Worst Dish Ever

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? ingredients-worstmealeverAs 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.

Fester+originallypostedtoFlickrasAndrewZimmernand JohnI 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.

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7 Responses to The Worst Dish Ever

  1. radioabby says:

    Just to give credit where credit is due, my husband Jason refers to Andrew Zimmern’s show as “Eating Shit With Uncle Fester”.

  2. karl says:

    i’d take bat on a plate over tunafish in a can any day. Although raw tuna is so good, I can’t figure out why anyone would cook it.

  3. Jeff says:

    I grew up on crappy food. Salmon patties, broiled chicken, tuna casserole, stuffed potatos that included – wait for it – spam. Spaghetti from a jar. My folks were that generation you speak of, that thought canned vegetables were the bees knees. I have eaten a lot of peanut butter toast, and still like it. But I don’t care where you came from, this is beyond the pale. You’re joking, right Alan? Please tell me you’re joking. Pleeeeezzee!!!

    • Alan says:

      I am here to tell you that this is a true story and only the name has been obscured to protect the family of the offender. I think it was the shrimp chow mein that is the worse offense in my opinion.

  4. Joan says:

    My mother would add a can of Campbells Vegetable Beef Soup to a scant pound of hamburger and call it meatloaf. Or tuna in a white sauce with peas…over toast!
    Our after school snack was slices of Velveeta Cheese(?) on Saltine crackers.
    It still brings tears to my eyes…but not from nostalgia!

  5. jenn says:

    This was hilarious! You are truly an excellent and witty writer. No surprise, because that’s you in person too. But I think you’re really onto something here
    I am usually up for just about anything, so for one second I thought, “fuck it! I’m gonna try it.” just from sheer & sick curiosity.
    But then, after thinking about it for just a few more moments, I threw up a little in my mouth so I decided against it.

    The humor sure does run in your family as well as in-laws becasue I love Abby’s note about Jason’s new name for Zimmerman’s show, “Eating Shit with Uncle Fester.”
    That’s like, although WAY funnier than ours, Anne & I renaming, “Unwrapped” to “How the Hell do They Make that Shit?”

    As a kid, one of the oddest foods we ate on a regular basis, when my mom was a single mom, was “pizza” (deviled ham, canned spaghetti sauce, slice of american cheese on toast.) But it was pretty damn good and I’d probably eat it again today.

    Our afterschool snacks varied from pitstops at the 7-11, where my sis and I ran a scam, one of us distracting the clerk by purchasing cola/cherry slurpees while the other shoplifted candy, to melting jumbo marshmallows on cookie sheet, which i’m sure my Mom was ever so pleased to come home to that mess. Aaah the good old days!

    I’m proud to say though, my folks are food nerds, so no matter what they had to work with it was always delicious!

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