My Truth of Tuna Casserole

Leslie Lee Nonfiction Scholarship – Nonfiction

Lucas McSwain

Central High School / Career Tech Center – 12th Grade

“Bonehead!” my Grandpa would yell at me and my siblings when we were idiots. The best way to have described him was him being logical, funny, and generous. He was undoubtedly a smartass, so much so that no one debated him because they would lose. But one day a young 2nd grade me broke a small crack through that iron wall, and it was all over a conversation about bees. He talked about how male bees attacked with their stingers while I was in the living room. I tilted my head back and remarked “But male bees don’t have stingers.” My grandpa responded, “Yes they do.” Right then and there, it became a dispute of “Uh-huhs” and “Nuh-Uhs” flying back and forth. I delivered the finishing blow… “Google it!” To everyone’s surprise (not mine) I was right. Male bees do not have stingers.
Those are the fond memories. The smell of tuna casserole in the oven, and the humidity engulfing the house. The glass pan coming out of the oven and being set on the rusted stove top. I open the dark wooden cupboard door and grab out old glass plates. The pan is set on the dinner table as I set down the plates at each seat. The big spoon breaks the crisped top, then slops it on each plate. I put a bunch of salt on it until it’s too much. I never really know how to proportion the salt so I have to stop sprinkling it on. Dinner is normally at 5:00, no, 4:00pm. You have to remember my grandparents were oddballs when it came to their meal times.

As much as I love tuna casserole, it’s quite scary not knowing how much mercury my family and I have consumed from the tuna. A little fun fact is that mercury amounts found in tuna is volatile and could be increasing (Kirchner, “How Worried Should You Be about Mercury in Your Tuna?” Consumer Reports). Mercury levels can vary significantly between different types of tuna and among different brands. Each tuna can may vary in levels of mercury. Which, in case you didn’t know, could have detrimental health effects on pregnant women and children especially. The FDA has guidelines that recommend limits on tuna consumption for pregnant women. There are typically two types of tuna commonly used in canned tuna, Albacore and Light tuna. Albacore tuna typically has higher mercury levels. Just some of the places that mercury impacts are: the nervous system, the immune system, and the digestive system (World Health Organization).
A leading cause for mercury found in tuna, as well as other species, is thought to be pollution from industrialization seeping into the oceans. It’s said that reducing human activities like fossil fuel emissions can decrease the mercury contamination in the oceans. Different oceans and regions have different levels of mercury; contamination is higher in more industrialized areas. There have been recommendations on the amount of tuna, as well as other mercury containing fish should be consumed in moderation (Kirchner, “How Worried Should You Be about Mercury in Your Tuna?” Consumer Reports). From what I know, neither me or my family haven’t been effected from mercury; even though I’ve been eating tuna all my life.
When I was young and after my parents split and I moved up to Michigan, one of the places my little sister and I would stay was at my grandparent’s house. I would say that they were a big part in raising me. I am very grateful for them and how kind they were to us. They would always make sure we were fed and not cooped up inside. Granted, it was one of the few places I had to sleep on the floor, but I didn’t mind it. My sister and I were such brats, we bickered and whined, and were very picky eaters. Then again, whose right is it to deem my sister and I “brats.” We learned to expand our taste by going in the garden and stealing already grown food like onions and chives. Regardless, my grandparents still put up with us.

I wonder what the most important ingredient is in tuna casserole? Well, that special ingredient is going to become inaccessible. In 2010, 1.5% of the bluefin population decreased.

The decline doesn’t seem noticeable, but it’s a sign. Conservation experts and sushi chefs have different opinions on people eating bluefish tuna. Go figures, they both have opposite needs of tune. Some think it can be sustainably managed while others say it should be completely avoided (can you guess who?). Organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, recommend avoiding all bluefin tuna species due to concerns about overfishing and by-catch issues (Jean Trinh “Should We Be Eating Bluefin Tuna?” Los Angeles Times). We have caught too much tuna, the most common fish found in sushi (so enjoy while you can). What really doesn’t help is the high demand for tuna; it’s one of the most common fish found in sushi and tuna companies. Who knows, maybe tuna casserole won’t be the same in the future. It’s not like bioengineering meat will become a thing.

The population deficit of bluefin tuna, and even the potential health implications from mercury exposure still hasn’t changed my appetite for tuna casserole. Tuna is just another food that we don’t really think about how it got to the dinner table. To be honest tuna alone kind of has a messed-up history and current status. Will that effect me eating tuna from now on?
Absolutely not. I’m going to take the stance “ignorance is bliss” on this one. I’d rather not contemplate all of this while I’m at the dinner table gobbling up tuna casserole.
I learned a bit from my grandparents: How to take care of a garden, utilizing a computer, cooking, how our government works, and so on. But what I wished I learned more about their experiences. My grandpa never brought up his time in the military, and asking always felt taboo. He only told me one story about his time in the Army. I was the only one he told anything about it to. Just from that story, however, I see why he didn’t bring it up often. I felt honored by it, though, in an odd way.

In my grandpa’s final moments, he didn’t eat much. Even when we sat for dinner we would try to stay out in the living room and sit on the carpet while he sat on his lazy-boy chair. What he could eat was wet and soft foods and liquids. He had gone from a big bowling ball belly to a scrawny body. The food he ate either drooped from his mouth or he just couldn’t hold it, but one of the food’s he would still eat was tuna casserole. This is not how I want to picture my grandpa, but it is what happened. It’s not the image I remember him for, but when I see tuna casserole a part of me is forced to think of him. I know the last thing he would want is for me to dwell on every detail that relates to him, or even to be sad, but that’s the case. I’m sorry grandpa but I don’t think I can uphold to that. I guess this is one last disagreement for the road.