As a Jewish American woman who grew up in the Northeast, Subway tuna sandwiches have long been a part of my personal religion. My consumption of them is deeply ritualistic: Every time I take an Amtrak train from NYC to my hometown of Boston, I stop at the Penn Station location for a footlong tuna sub. (I order it with with lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, and mayo — unfortunately, no onions because of my sensitive stomach, part of my aforementioned Jewishness.) I usually eat the first half before I get on the train, because I am anxious and am always at least 30 minutes early. I eat the second half once I’m on the train as I lazily watch the Connecticut coast zip by. My Northeast corridor rite-of-passage always ends with an alcoholic beverage from the cafe car, because despite being 28 years old I still get a kick out of being legally allowed to drink on a train.
But back to the tuna: Today, my long-standing ritual was momentarily threatened when I saw the recent New York Times investigation into the question of whether or not Subway’s tuna is, in fact, real tuna. In the moment it took between when my coworker, Leora Yashari, shared the story in our team Slack (she wrote: “Can someone else please open this for me? I’m scared”) to when I saw the headline — “The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery” — I felt my entire world come crashing down. Could it be? Is Subway’s tuna really “tuna”?
The New York Times launched their investigation into Subway’s tuna following a lawsuit that was brought against the sandwich chain several months ago, in which the plaintiffs allege that Subway’s tuna is not made of real tuna. Times reporter Julia Carmel decided to see for herself whether or not Subway used real tuna, and did a semi-scientific experiment, in which she “procured more than 60 inches worth of Subway tuna sandwiches. I removed and froze the tuna meat, then shipped it across the country to a commercial food testing lab.” The results, Carmel reports, were jarring: The lab found “no amplifiable tuna DNA was present in the sample.” This news hit me like a bullet to the heart — no tuna DNA? None?! Has my whole life been a lie? What are they going to tell me next, lox isn’t made out of salmon?! I was a mess.
But then I kept reading. As the lab explained to Carmel, the lack of tuna DNA could mean one of two things: either there is actually no tuna in Subway tuna, or it’s already been so processed (via being cooked and mixed with mayo, etc.) that they couldn’t pull out any specific DNA. This means it could still be tuna.
While I must say that if the former is true, I’m moving to Mars, if it’s the latter that winds up being the case, well, I can live with that. Every good tuna connoisseur knows the tuna that goes into sandwiches is not sushi grade — in reality, it doesn’t work as tuna salad unless it’s a little beat up and just the right shade of beige. If the fact that it’s cooked and mixed with other delicious things to make one of my favorite tuna salads around means that tuna DNA is undetectable, I don’t really mind!
Also of note is that even though the lab used by the Times couldn’t find “amplifiable tuna DNA,” it isn’t the only one who tested Subway’s tuna. Inside Edition did a similar experiment and found that there was actual tuna in Subway’s tuna salad. Another thing worth mentioning? The lawsuit against Subway has now softened its claims, and is simply questioning whether or not Subway’s tuna is pure yellowfin and skipjack tuna — a very different question than whether or not it’s tuna at all. (And, again, not the kind of thing that matters for a true tuna connoisseur).
In case you’re thinking that I’m taking this all a little bit too seriously, rest assured that I am not alone in my Subway Tuna Is Perfect Tuna feelings. As Leora said to me, “Subway tuna is the first real tuna I ever knew as a child, and so to question its authenticity is to question the existence of tuna altogether.” She explains: “Subway tuna is nostalgic, it’s the tuna fish sandwiches we grew up on and still treasure.” Plus, it’s just excellently made. “Does it have lots of mayo in it? Yes. But we here at Refinery29 do not shy away from mayo,” Leora continues, defending Subway tuna’s honor, “and this shouldn’t discount Subway tuna’s tuna-ness just because it doesn’t meet society’s manufactured standards for tuna fish sandwiches. This is a smear campaign and I won’t allow it.”
This entire encounter with Subway tuna heretics has only confirmed my belief that Subway tuna is a spiritual experience and nobody can take that away from me. But lucikly, nobody has to, because, as a Subway spokesperson wrote to me: “Subway Restaurants serve 100% wild-caught tuna… DNA testing is simply not a reliable way to identify denatured proteins, like Subway’s tuna, which was cooked before it was tested.” Simply put: This is one religious experience that’s fully backed up by science.
But, even if Subway tuna was not scientifically tuna, and eating it was purely a matter of faith, I’d be okay with it, because Subway tuna is, and always will be, emotionally tuna. In the end, what is Subway tuna but a reminder of who we are and where we came from? A nostalgia machine dunked in mayonnaise and wrapped in perfectly toasted Italian bread.
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