A fish tale

From Jewish day school cookbooks to JUF lunches, tuna fish is ubiquitous in Jewish life.

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The author’s tuna recipe for her second-grade day school cookbook.

Sorting through some old belongings recently, I discovered a handcrafted recipe book created by my second-grade Jewish day school classroom. Each of us contributed a recipe to the compilation that we dictated to our teachers to type up.  

Mine was for a tuna fish sandwich--not a surprising selection because I've loved tuna for as long as I can remember. My instructions culminated with adding water to the fish. Okay, I'm not exactly Julia Child, but at least I've learned that you're supposed to drain--not add--water from the tin can. 

Fast forward 35 years to present day. When my JUF colleagues and I share what we've missed most about our physical office space, the JUF building, during the pandemic, tuna fish often gets top billing. 

If you've ever attended a meal at JUF--shout out to our fantastic Chef Keith Wagner and his talented kitchen staff--you're familiar with the delicious tuna salad. No matter what else is on the menu that day, you can always count on the white porcelain bowl of tuna at the end of the buffet line.  

From Jewish day school cookbooks to JUF lunches, tuna fish is ubiquitous in Jewish life. In fact, Ashkenazi Jews have come to depend on the unpretentious tuna fish at every Jewish gathering from Shabbat lunches to break-the-fasts, from  simchas to shivas .  

So why is tuna fish so synonymous with the American Jewish experience?  For starters, the saltwater fish--which made the cut for Alana Newhouse's  The 100 Most Jewish Foods. 

But the same could be said for a lot of other non-shellfish fish like trout, tilapia, and cod--so why tuna? 

I dug deeper and discovered it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that tuna became a desirable fish for people to eat. Until then, according to a 2021  Nosher  article by Sonya Sanford, sardines had been the most popular tinned fish for human consumption, while tuna was relegated to fishing bait and animal food.  

But in 1903, a mix of poor ocean conditions and overfishing made for a disaster of a sardine season. That's when a Los Angeles-based fish company executive, Albert P. Halfhill, set out to find an alternative to sardines, discovering albacore tuna aplenty off the coast of California. 

The combination of tuna fish's abundance, the fish being a convenient source of protein with not much more prep than opening a tin can, its modest price tag, and some smart marketing--such as offering free tastings at county fairs--led to tuna's soaring popularity. 

Its growing appeal coincided with the rise of the Jewish delicatessen as a gathering place for European Jewish immigrants in metropolises like Manhattan and here in the Windy City. The fish soon became a staple on deli menus dished up in versatile ways--as a sandwich on a bagel or rye, dressed up as a fancier melt, or scooped straight up.  

The Bagel Restaurant & Deli, in Lakeview, sells roughly 25 pounds of albacore tuna a day. Its general manager, Richard Brantner, tells me the deli's tuna salad--made with mayo, celery, and onion--is typically the third most popular seller on the menu after corned beef and salami. 

At Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen, tuna fish is also a go-to choice for customers looking for a lighter, non-meat alternative. The Chicago institution's fourth generation owner, Dan Raskin, says Manny's serves a "clean" version of tuna salad, that goes easy on the mayo and adds just celery and salt and pepper to the dish. 

If there is a minyan  of Jews breaking bread together, it's a good bet that tuna salad will be the 11th guest in the room. As we honor food's centrality to Jewish life in this issue, let's celebrate tuna fish, a fixture at American Jewish tables and a witness to our Jewish stories for more than a century.  

"If there is a minyan of Jews breaking bread together, it's a good bet that tuna salad will be the 11th guest in the room "

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