One of these days, they’re going to revoke my Midwestern citizenship and deport me, and here’s why: for a long time, I couldn’t bake a casserole.
Awhile back, my friend Ann called to say that our friend Susan was having knee surgery, and Ann was throwing her a pity party. “How nice!” I said, adding the standard Indiana rejoinder: “Can I bring something?”
“Bring a funny card and a casserole,” said Ann.
“That’s easy,” I thought, until the date approached and I realized that not only did I lack casserole recipes; I have never made a casserole. Also, I have not eaten one since the early 1970s, when I was in grade school just before my mom and the rest of America discovered fresh vegetables.
Not to be thwarted, I consulted a vintage 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking, which offered 56 different casserole recipes. But Mark Bittman’s 1998 How to Cook Everything gave just one lonely entry, proof that casseroles have become a culinary endangered species.
I decided to ask my co-workers if they had any favorite recipes. The gal in the next cubicle piped right up, recommending Chicken Tetrazzini. “Someone brought it to my dad’s wake,” she said, “and we’ve been eating it ever since.”
Upon further study, I discovered four hard-and-fast rules about casseroles. First, they are usually rectangular, but a round covered dish will also work. Second, they require a carb, a meat, and what my grandmother’s generation would have called a vegetable—you know, a tablespoon of onion sautéed in butter or a spoonful of pimentos. Third, they have a liquid (usually canned) like tomato sauce or cream-of-something soup. Casseroles end with a topping—grated cheese, crushed potato chips or La Choy’s chow mein noodles—to seal in the flavor and protect your oven from all that bubbling deliciousness.
Determined to make the best darn dish at the pity party, I boldly assembled the ingredients for Chicken Tetrazzini. The recipe called for pimentos—which seemed essential as the only non-beige item—but I couldn’t find these at the supermarket. So I improvised with fresh red pepper strips, and turned my mind to other burning questions.
For example, should I bake the casserole and then freeze it, or give it to Susan uncooked for her to freeze, thaw and bake? Could a one-dish meal please a family of four? How would I know if Susan liked my casserole? How would I know if she even ate it?
Before the Internet existed, women would just call each other up on the telephone and discuss such things over a late-afternoon martini. Through shared conversation and experience, they strengthened bonds of kinship and passed time-honored traditions to the next generation.
Those days are over. Being a twenty-first century gal, I just googled the words “freezing casseroles best way” and got some quick answers. As I lovingly layered chicken and noodles, I imagined my creation baking in Susan’s oven, filling her house with the warm smell of the 1970s right before her parents’ divorce.
To find out if she liked it, I decided I’d give her the casserole and not tell her its name or what was in it. That way I could ask, “How was the casserole?” and when she replied, “delicious” (the standard Indiana rejoinder), I could say, “Ha! If it was so delicious, then what was in it?”
Soon after, my 80-year-old neighbor died, and that was sad for two reasons. First, he was the longest serving liberal on our city council and second, he was a lovely guy. Since I wasn’t able to go to his wake, I thought I’d make his family a casserole. But months later, I still had not eaten one. My commitment to the genre was half-baked.
Circumstances conspired to change the situation. The recession took a huge bite out of our food budget. I got a new job, which drastically limited my time and energy for cooking. When my aunt e-mailed me a couple of my grandma’s favorite casserole recipes, nostalgia practically washed over me. Why not try these savory time-and-money-savers on my family? I thought—beige is beautiful!
With only a twinge of fear that the result might disgust rather than delight, I recreated these 1950s-era classics from the suburban Chicago kitchen of my grandma, Bernice Green. Where indicated, I made some twenty-first century adjustments to accommodate heart-healthy and vegetarian eaters. My family proclaimed the experiment “completely edible.”
Hot, heavy and hearty—at least at our house, the casserole is back.