This post has been updated.
His kitchen-wear should have been your first clue: Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) sports a sky-blue dress shirt and slacks, as if he just came home from an all-nighter on the Intelligence Committee and couldn’t shed his suit jacket and tie fast enough. We already know lawmakers can’t feast in the Senate chamber, or even drink a glass of milk, and Warner looks as if he’s ready to eat like it’s 1969, with a tuna melt from his youth.
Your second clue should have been this quote, delivered with the kind of deadpan, bone-dryness usually reserved for Bill Murray or Steven Wright: “I’m going to be moving fairly quickly, so unless you’re a professional chef you may want to occasionally pause the video so you can keep up.”
But we’re living under quarantine. Many of us are bored. We’re spending more time with our phones than with our loved ones (unless your phone is your beloved, and then we have larger issues to deal with here). We spot a U.S. senator trying to foist off a childhood tuna melt on social media channels, where we’re desperately holding on to our gastronomic bona fides during a pandemic when hunger is real and ingredients are difficult to acquire. We, in short, see an easy target at a stressful moment in history: a lawmaker, an incompetent cook, a seemingly self-satisfied Instagram video and a stupid sandwich.
Release the hounds!
Dear Internet: The joke, it would seem, is on us.
Despite evidence to the contrary, this is not a video on how to make a tuna melt. This is not even a campaign video trying to establish Warner’s everyman qualities despite a net worth of more than $200 million, placing him among the richest U.S. senators. This is a public service announcement buried in that most viral of viral videos: a quarantine “cooking” demo.
This may be hard to believe for some, but Warner is not a complete fool around food. He and his wife, Lisa Collis, invested in the renovation of the historic Majestic Cafe in Alexandria. The couple host an “almost annual” pig roast. The one in 2017 featured barbecue from Buz and Ned’s, the superb smokehouse in Richmond.
“I’ve cooked for him hundreds of times,” texted Cathal Armstrong, the James Beard Award-nominated chef behind Restaurant Eve, the Alexandria fine-dining landmark that closed in 2018. “He has a great palate and great taste.” Armstrong’s company, the Eat Good Food Group, operated the Majestic for a number of years; Warner and Collis were still part of the ownership group at the time.
In other words, the odds are good that Warner knows that a tuna melt isn’t prepared in a microwave. That canned tuna should be drained before using. That such a thick slathering of mayo should come with its own defibrillator.
Just for fun, I made the sandwich this afternoon. I bought all the ingredients Warner suggested, down to the “medium sharp” cheddar cheese and his preferred canned tuna (Chicken of the Sea). It takes all of two minutes to prepare. It features no mustard, no red onion, no lemon juice, no gherkins, nothing to cut the gut-busting, stomach-churning richness. The sandwich offers no resistance. Your teeth sink into it and right through it. It’s like biting into mashed potatoes. The tuna melt is everything an 8-year-old boy could want for an afternoon snack: It’s soft. It’s fatty. It requires no skill whatever. It leaves little evidence of your indulgence.
Well, little evidence, except for the half-eaten tuna melt on my counter. No threat on Earth could have forced me to finish this mess. I still have some shred of self-respect, even if I haven’t changed out of these sweatpants for 10 days.
When I forwarded the video to Armstrong, he immediately responded with a text: “Absolutely hilarious. Thanks for the laugh.” The chef and restaurateur behind Kaliwa on the Wharf said there’s “not a chance” Warner is serious, although that has not stopped the video from taking on a life of its own. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), wearing a Howard University apron, hosted a video conference call with Warner to explain how to make a proper tuna melt. The call runs a painstaking 10-plus minutes.
“I’ve already eaten my sandwich with this much time you’re taking,” Warner says at some point, countering critics who claim he has no sense of humor. (In the call, Warner also threatens another sandwich video, this time with beef bologna and Velveeta cheese.)
Armstrong would argue that Harris, like many others, missed the point of Warner’s original video. Armstrong, as a lifelong kitchen dweller, suggested Warner is simply reminding us to do one thing: Wash your hands for 20 seconds, although, as many have noted, he needs to work on his hand-washing techniques.
“I like the subversive message,” Armstrong wrote.
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