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The Eternal Comfort of the Casserole
Understanding the history and influence of the casserole
2007 was the year of the casserole. I made a sausage ziti casserole in my mother-in-law’s large empty kitchen, in the house where my father-in-law lay dying. As I layered the sausage and noodles with red sauce and sour cream, I could hear him moaning in pain upstairs. I remember those casseroles specifically because, in those days of grief, we did not order out. Only once do I remember having pizza with the family, and that was only because my brother-in-law brought some home in frustration. I volunteered to buy sandwiches or bring in barbeque. But my mother-in-law insisted we eat home food. So there were casseroles.
I didn’t understand it then. But I think I understand now. In a time of loss, she wanted something that would hold. She wanted a casserole.
Two months after my father-in-law died, my sisters were in a car accident on the way from their home in Florida to visit me in Iowa. One sister lay in a coma in the surgical ICU. Another sister had sustained severe injuries to her neck and back. And in those desperate hospital days, friends from my church delivered casseroles in disposable aluminum pans to the family waiting room in the ICU. My parents and I ate from them on paper plates, not knowing what we were putting into our bodies. Only that it was hot and filling. The casseroles came and came. Vegetables, meats, and cheese bound together with a sauce and cooked until bubbly. An entire meal in a serving. Spoon and eat. I was grateful for the casseroles even as I resented them. The casseroles were there because everything was falling apart. I threw tater tot casseroles into the trash, vowing never to eat something topped with tater tots ever again because it would remind me of the way my eyes ached with tears, the way my head always hurt, the way sitting in the chairs in the waiting room felt — sitting between life and death. Hoping to sway the balance. Eating tater tots. I didn’t hold to that vow.
Later, when my daughter was born and my friends delivered another train of casseroles, I was so grateful for them. Then, the warm tater tots and cheese, even warmed in the microwave, felt like help, even as that new child in my arms screamed and screamed and never seemed to sleep.
The food of grief and the food of survival. The food of holding together.
The ancient Greeks wrote about casseroles. In the Aristophanes play Wasps, a character talks about being smothered in casserole. In the Deipnosophistae, which translates to dinner-table philosophers, the poet Athanaeus, who wrote in the early third century AD, describes casseroles made of salted fish and covered in white wine and oil. Clifford A. Wright, in his cookbook Bake Until Bubbly: The Ultimate Casserole Cookbook, offers a detailed history of the casserole, noting that the name of the food comes from the dish that it is made in, which has many linguistic origins from Spanish to Greek and even possibly Mozarab, a language spoken by Christians living in Spain in the 12th century.
Wright connects casserole to the French cassoulet, which is a laborious bean-based dish, often involving duck confit and lamb and pork. A dish also named after the pan it’s made in. However, although they are linguistically related, the French cassoulet resembles the American version as much as a chicken resembles a T-Rex.
The first English version of casserole appears in a 1706 dictionary by Edward Phillips. Then, it was a rice-based dish stuffed with savory meats.
In 2018, in The Seattle Times, Erika Janik investigated the origins of the American casserole. Specifically, the claim that a woman named Elmire Jolicoeur, a French Canadian immigrant, invented the casserole in Berlin, New Hampshire. The result of the investigation is that no, Jolicoeur did not invent the casserole. It’s hard to invent something that has always kind of been: dump meat, starch, and/or a carbohydrate, and vegetables in a dish and bake with a binding ingredient.
Janik concludes, “And the contents of that dish likely didn’t have one inventor but many. A bunch of stuff cooked in a dish together appears in cuisines around the world. And has for centuries even if we didn’t call it by that name.”
In her syndicated column “Food and Table,” which appeared in newspapers across the country on February 11, 1903, cookbook author Lida Ames Willis gave her readers recipes for a sweetbread casserole and a Hungarian goulash. She concludes that a casserole is anything made in a casserole dish, calling those dishes “en casserole.”
Every culture has its casserole — its hodgepodge dish of layered foods baked together to create something hot and bubbly and soothing. Stratas, scrambles, bakes, gratins, hot dishes, pilafs, poofs, pies, and perloos.
In America, as the Great Depression made meat more expensive, casseroles were a way of stretching out ingredients. An un-bylined recipe article that was syndicated across American newspapers in July 1937, offers suggestions for how to cook bologna, that popular Depression Era protein. One of the recipes is a rice and bologna casserole. It’s made up of chopped-up chunks of bologna, rice, tomatoes, green pepper, and onion.
In 1947, President Harry S. Truman asks Americans to help aid with postwar recovery by eating meatless on Tuesdays. His wife, Bess, invented a tuna noodle-type casserole and shared the recipe to inspire Americans.
The Great Depression and the food ration programs of the world wars had a leveling effect on the food of poverty. Because only rationed food was accessible, rationed food is what was cooked. Casseroles are easy and cheap to make with processed foods — a can of corn, a can of beans, mixed with rice, and a can of tomatoes, baked and stretched thin with a bit of butter.
And yet, as a dish that is by definition defined by the container and not what is inside, the casserole contains multitudes and regional variations. Macaroni and cheese to a King Ranch casserole to a Kugel. It’s a container that holds all we put in it and melts it all together. In her book We Are What We Eat, Donna Gabaccia frequently points to the casserole as the “melting pot.”
Even during the post–World War II prosperity, casseroles continued to grow in popularity. The war machine needed something to produce, so it made commercial ovens and processed foods. What were once war rations, were now marketed as time-saving hacks to the stressed, anxious housewives who had been forced out of the workforce and into the home to make room in the economy for returning soldiers.
One of the first Betty Crockers, Marjorie Hustead, who built the home services department of General Mills, said in 1948 that her research among American homemakers revealed that they were “uncertain,” “anxious,” and “insecure.” They wanted help with the insurmountable task of creating and maintaining the greatest American myth — the ideal of the home.
This insecurity allowed General Mills and other food manufacturers to introduce a whole onslaught of processed foods and a whole industry of tastemakers and advertisements for how to cook them. According to the Chicago Tribune, in the 1940s, “Eugenia Japp urges husband Leonard (who founded Jay’s Potato Chips) to put a recipe on the chip bags. He used her version of a tuna fish casserole topped with crushed potato chips.”
In 1955, that staple of Midwestern Thanksgivings, the green bean casserole topped with a can of french fried onions, was invented by Dorcas O’Reilly, one of the first full-time members of the Campbell’s Soup home economics department.
This is how the casserole worked its way onto our tables. A dish born of poverty and convenience. A dish both overly processed and perfectly delicious. Casserole is ubiquitous and to the haters, bland. (To which I say, add spice! Casseroles are what you make them.) But the point is a fair one. A casserole in its essence is a dish of comfort and a dish of hot, ready, cheap proteins and carbs.
Gabaccia posits that the reason casserole is so prevalent in the Midwest is that they combine the roux-heavy dishes of Scandinavian countries with the cheap and easy ingredients of rural scarcity. Roux becomes cream of mushroom soup.
But it’s about more than just the ingredients, it’s about the personality of the casserole that pairs so well with the Midwestern ethos. The casserole is a cheap, easy, hot, and delicious calorie delivery vehicle. A dish easy to shove in your mouth after a long day of working in a field. A dish that so frugally uses up leftovers from fancier meals. A dish that is easy to cook up and bring to a friend, or put on a potluck table. A dish designed for giving and for comfort.
And while I do not idealize the Midwest, I do know that it is good at one thing: giving.
In The Elements of Taste by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky, they write about flavor profiles of food, tastes that push, that pull, that punctuate — the salty, the sweet, the bulby, and the spiced aromatic.
Casseroles, which are the sum of their parts, which can include all of those tastes, the bulby, the starchy, the aromatic, the sweet, and the salty, but the result is a taste that holds us, that steadies, that reassures.
The day my father-in-law moved into hospice, I sat on the stairs with my mother-in-law, staring at the front door, knowing he’d never pass through that passageway again. Together we cried. And when she’d had enough grief, my mother-in-law stood up, wiped her face with her hands, and wiped those hands on her pants, and then she went to the kitchen and made a chicken tetrazzini casserole.
This is Men Yell At Me, a weekly newsletter about politics and personhood, written from inside red state America. If you loved this newsletter, you will also love my essay on gas station culture and breakfast pizza.
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