Talking Tuna and Eating Sandwiches With Virginia Senator Mark Warner

We taste-tested 7 local tuna melts with the Senator, who dished on sandwiches (and that viral video).

Senator Mark Warner loves a good tuna melt. Photo by Jeff Elkins .

There’s something about politicians and their unhinged food moments that sticks in our collective culinary consciousness. Which is why, three years after Virginia Senator Mark Warner’s tuna melt video broke the Internet, we found ourselves in his Senate office room, taste-testing the finest tuna melts Washington, DC, has to offer. 

Full disclosure: this taste test wasn’t entirely fair. Tuna melts do not travel well. They’re like shooting stars of the sandwich world—blink, and you’ll miss the melty moment (and be left with soggy bread). Also, our attempt to revive the melts with a panini press violated a whole new etiquette rule: do not reheat fish in someone else’s office. Especially if that office does not have a kitchen. Or windows. 

But! We’re talking Mark Warner—a distinguished politician and multi-millionaire who poured an entire can of undrained tuna on white bread, topped it with cold cheese and an obscene amount of mayonnaise, stuck the whole thing in the microwave, and ate it in front of America. If a bar even exists, it’s set low. 

You’ll have to wait until our “Best Of Washington” issue drops on May 25 to find out the results of the taste-test, which featured seven sandwiches from DC and Virginia. In the meantime, here’s a candid Q&A with Senator Warner in which we discuss all things tuna melt, whether a hot dog is a sandwich, and what that viral video was really about (hint: not a handwashing PSA, after all). 

Is a tuna melt really your favorite sandwich?

That might be a bit of an overstatement. But as somebody who is notoriously not known as a great chef—my culinary skills are a tuna melt and fried bologna. About 25 years ago, when bruschetta first broke onto the scene, I made a mean bruschetta because it was like, put some olive oil and tomatoes on French bread and stick it in the oven. [Note: Italians, please weigh in with your thoughts.]

Did you think the video was going to go viral?

I did. At the beginning of Covid, everybody was doing these heartfelt videos with their grandmother’s cookie recipe. My dear friend [Virginia Senator] Tim Kaine played the harmonica and sang this wonderful spiritual song. It was so much wholesomeness that it made me want to puke! So I thought, let’s have a little fun.

I am smart enough to know that you do drain the [tuna] can so you don’t get gloppy tuna. Also that microwaving may not be the best choice, especially with white bread. But the thing that got the most attention was the gross amount of mayo. But with that, I’m kind of guilty as charged. I’ve been to known to have mayo on hot dogs.

So if you like mayo on hot dogs, is a hot dog a sandwich?


For mayo, Duke’s or Hellmann’s?

I’m now a Duke’s guy, but I grew up on Miracle Whip. My grandmother had Hellman’s which was, like, the high price stuff. We had Miracle Whip, which grosses out my kids. 

If not a tuna melt, what is your favorite sandwich?

Give me a good cheeseburger. [Note: Sandwich purists, please weigh in with your thoughts.] I grew up in Indiana so I have pretty Midwestern white guy tastes. But this is not my first taste test—I’ve been a taste-tester extraordinaire. A number of years back, when Top Chef was at its peak, I did the power lunch series at the Palm with Joe [Scarborough] and Mika [Brzezinski] and Tom Colicchio. He was one of the people who trashed my tuna melt. Tom Colicchio and José Andrés both trashed my tuna melt! Kamala Harris tried to show me up too. She put pickles on hers.

Are you anti-pickle?

I’m very pickle-minded. I don’t think I’ve ever done pickles on a tuna melt though.

As you’ve experienced on social media, people feel very strongly about tuna melts. Why do you think they’re such a divisive topic in America today?

When [the video] went viral, no one took notice right away. And then there was someone who was like: “Stop everything! I just saw the grossest thing ever! You gotta check this out!” And the Internet, you know, literally exploded. I had requests for, like, 30 TV interviews—all the national shows, all the morning shows. It was a little pathetic, thinking: I have 47 bills that have become law, and tuna melts are what’s getting me on national networks. 

And then the wild thing was the pushback of: “Is this guy serious? How is he so gross? Is this some kind of secret message about Covid handwashing?” It was like the power of the Internet to create a conspiracy theory out of anything.

Is that actually your kitchen in the video? Because I think my grandmother had those same cabinets…

It was actually in our guest house, and the guest house had been redone in the 1990s. There were more than a few commentators who said, “God, I hear that guy’s rich! The microwave comes from the 1990s!” Having seen the amount of grief that Nancy Pelosi got when she did a Covid video in her kitchen—it was interesting.

Do you plan to releasing any more “cooking” videos?

I wanted to do one later in Covid that would have shown a little more of my green side, my environmentally conscious side. I was going to put lettuce on a sandwich with Velveeta and bologna (also with mayo). But the uniform opinion from my daughter and my staff was no. You can’t repeat the magic. 

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.