Charlie the Tuna Salad

Posted on 19 February 2014

For 50 years I have credited my Mom’s olfactory alarm system for saving us from one of the deadliest poisons known to man. She religiously poked her nose into every can before ruling it fit for consumption. But my memory hasn’t kept up with that of my 97-year-old mother. She remembers that she rejected the Tainted Tuna because of how it looked.

I was 13 at the time, and eager to make Mom’s sweet and crunchy tuna salad, a task I always relished (pun unavoidable). I opened the only can we had on the shelf and handed it to Mom. She took a whiff. Fine. But then she stopped. “It looked nasty,” she says. “It was crusty, brown, and dry, and there was no oil.”

She tossed the can, tuna and all, into the trash.

She offhandedly mentioned it to my Dad later, and it piqued his doctorly curiosity. He asked her to retrieve the suspicious processed fish product so he could send it out to a lab the next day.

The lab injected mice with a diluted sample, then waited.

After a few days, Mom got a phone call. “All they said was, ‘We want to inform you that the mice died.’”

Once confirmed that it was a galloping case of botulinum toxin, “they” (we don’t know who) instituted a massive recall. A couple of representatives called to talk with Mom, but she declined, letting Dad give the details. She preferred to keep a low profile.

Now, you may ask, wasn’t the can all bulgy or leaky? No, she says. “There were no dents, no holes. It was a perfectly good can or I wouldn’t have taken it.”

We all swore off tuna, joking that we had gotten Charlie, the garish advertising spokesfish who was rejected for substandard taste. A good decade passed before I got the nerve to make the salad again.

In that pre-Googlian era, the source of this botulism remained a complete mystery to us. Now, from just a simple search, I learn that the culprit was a San Francisco cannery. Three Detroit women—a mother, daughter, and neighbor—thought their tuna looked, smelled, and tasted good enough for a lovely soup-and-sandwich luncheon. Two of them died. It was the only known instance of botulism poisoning ever attributed to canned tuna in this country. The FDA collected at least 21 cans nationwide containing the botulinus organism. Who knows, perhaps Mom’s was the first to blow the lid off this deadly threat.

So thanks, Mom, for this recipephany and for saving your family. You insist that any homemaker would have done the same. But thank you for not leaving it up to your oblivious teenage daughter—the one hungriest for your tuna salad.

PS. Mom’s response to this post: “You’re going to put a dent in canned tuna.”

Mom’s Tuna Salad (without Charlie)

  • 2 cans white tuna in oil or water, drained and carefully inspected
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (Mom likes Miracle Whip brand salad dressing)
  • 3 tablespoons sweet relish
  • 3 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • Scallions (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon capers (optional)

Mix tuna, mayonnaise, relish, and celery. Adjust to taste. Add scallions and/or capers if desired.

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2 responses to Charlie the Tuna Salad

  • Emily says:

    Diane, eek Mom may be right, but this looks so good, most would throw caution to the winds, and dive right in!

  • Ariel says:

    Great story! And the recipe looks good! Hope I can find relish around here…

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