HomeCultureThe Casserole: A Good Company Dish

The Casserole: A Good Company Dish

Carrie Allen Tipton traces the lineage of the casserole in Southern cooking as she finds herself craving one for comfort. 

Okra Evangeline. I did a double-take. How was such a melodious name assigned to the prosaic casserole? But there it was, on page 209 of The Cotton Country Collection, a fine cookbook published in 1972 by the Junior Charity League of Monroe, Louisiana, replete with casserole recipes. I wondered if my longsuffering husband would let me name our future daughter Okra Evangeline. Could there be a lovelier alignment of syllables, of meanings? As a matter of fact, I blamed this little girl, still an “inside baby,” for my recent and inexplicable longing for a homemade casserole. Pregnancy does strange things to the body and mind, and it would serve her right to be saddled with the name of a casserole for making me crave such a strange foodstuff.

The much-maligned dish has remained a staple in many American kitchens, despite changing whims in culinary trends, the scorn of the foodie world and its fundamentally un-cool nature. Even photographing a casserole with Instagram cannot confer hipster status on the hapless dish. It doggedly persists, however, especially in the South. Present at birth and death, powerfully marking off life cycles, its constituent elements (cream of mushroom soup! fried onions!) somehow coalesce into far more than the sum of its parts, as any new mother or bereaved widow will gratefully attest.

Southern food writer John T. Edge provides in Southern Belly: A Food Lover’s Companion a litany of the sublime possibilities: sweet potato casserole, broccoli casserole, turnip green casserole, squash casserole …  all available in a single blaze of glory on the steam table at a small hotel in Tallassee, Alabama, on a day that he happened to wander in. The platonic form of casserole can be instantiated in an endless variety of ways, it turns out.

Edge’s list sounds just about right. I remember all of the above and more festooning the tables at what my childhood church still calls a “covered dish supper.” In this recent undignified spurt of pregnancy craving, my yen was for a particular covered dish, a curried chicken casserole, which I recalled from hazy memory as golden and bubbling and comforting. I was growing up and having a baby and my innards needed a bear hug. After some plotting, on the weekly pilgrimage to our yuppified market, I snuck cream of mushroom soup and mayonnaise into the cart. My husband spied the interlopers at once and raised puzzled eyebrows. Admittedly the stowaways sat stodgily and incongruously beside fresh asparagus, free-range chicken and cage-free eggs. There wasn’t anything fresh or free-range about my soup and mayo but at least — I defended them feebly — “they are organic, and I need them for that casserole I told you about!” He peered suspiciously at them again and we continued in silence.

Far less charitable were Edge’s remarks about cream of mushroom, describing it as “the ubiquitous duct tape of culinary creation.” Ouch. Rachel Nolan’s article on casserole history, “Dishing It Out: The Many-Layered Story of the Casserole,” was kinder to the taupe concoction, labeling it with the gentler moniker “America’s béchamel.” I had my duct tape — my American béchamel — and was ready for assembly. After an emergency phone consultation with my mother (who confirmed that no, I hadn’t misread the recipe, two cups of mayonnaise was right), I slid the dish into the oven. Wait. It looked wrong. I closed my eyes, rewound the film reel of memory. There used to be some color on top of this thing, some reddish flecks … Paprika. How had I known? The recipe hadn’t said so, but I knew. Later, as I flipped through older cookbooks, I saw that every self-respecting casserole gets a dusting of paprika. I wasn’t at all sure that the spice affected the taste, but it surely imparted the right color. My inaugural casserole emerged 45 long minutes later, bubbling at me. It sat on the counter and I stared at it, rapt, entranced.

Ever the academic, I sought to historicize my culinary behavior. Surely it stemmed from Georgia-Florida-Mississippi geographical roots, exerting their mystical and inexorable pull? I read in one source that the iconic Southern foodstuff was actually invented in 1866 by a New Hampshire woman, and one of French descent at that. I frowned. This couldn’t be right. The hunt continued. The Kentucky Housewife¸ the noble state’s first cookbook, confirmed my suspicions that casseroles, whether or not created in the South, certainly existed there well before the war and did not result incidentally from a spasm of post-bellum cultural unity.

Compiled in 1839 by one enterprising Mrs. Lettice Bryan, the book contains a recipe for “Mutton Casserolles.” And indeed, with layers of mashed potatoes, tomatoes, mutton and ham, and toppings of gravy and wine seasoned with nutmeg and baked in the oven, this was a casserole. Bryan may not have been the first in the U.S. to make or describe a casserole, but she certainly advanced the art immeasurably with the injunction “send to table immediately, with a boat of melted butter and wine.” This is the only “casserolle” to appear in Bryan’s formidable collection of over 1300 “receipts,” as contemporary spelling had it, so one might surmise the concept had not permeated the South at that date. But by the author’s own admission in the preface, despite recent improvements in cookery, “there remains an immense space for more.” I am sure she pictured casseroles filling that void.

Nolan’s article, mentioned earlier, and no less an authority than the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, gives a clearer picture of the casserole’s cultural path in the 20th century: How, in the South and beyond, it answered the call of patriotic duty in World War I by stretching meat rations; how it later answered the call of its soulmate, Campbell’s condensed soup, which appeared in the Depression; how it helped win a second war by helping newly-minted female factory workers make quick hot meals in their compressed free time. I can only imagine what the canned and boxed components signified in the next decade, waiting silently and capably on the pantry shelves of 1950s housewives. Abundance. Convenience. Stability. Security. The ability to comfortably wait out a nuclear attack in a domestic fallout shelter.

Here I must quarrel with Nolan’s narrative, for she dates the decline of the casserole ca. 1960, and my entire Southern casserole-marked childhood of the 1980s and 1990s argues against this thesis. So does my tattered copy of the Cotton Country Collection. The Collection’s 471 pages bear witness to a vibrant casserole culture, thriving well into the 1970s. The ladies of the Junior League of Monroe certainly filled out some of the “immense space” for improvements in American cookery lamented by Mrs. Bryan in the previous century.

What did these casseroles mean to the Louisiana ladies in the 1970s, after the wild previous decade? Any Southern lady of casserole-making age who had witnessed the moon landing, Vietnam, Stonewall and a veritable invasion of hippies and feminists and people of color must have partially addressed this cultural destabilization via culinary retrenchment. The Collection captures some social retrenchment, too, as firm and clear and strong as the persistent baking of outmoded recipes. Each recipe’s creators are listed, not under their first and last names, but according to their husband’s names.  Mrs. Don Irby. Mrs. John Smith. Mrs. Ralph Brockman. Take that, women’s lib.

Yes, the Cotton Country Collection indexes another time and place. Baked Chicken Casserole is labeled for use with “unexpected company or a quick Sunday Supper.” Is there any such thing as unexpected company anymore, I wondered as I flipped? Doesn’t everyone alert the general populace to future intended actions through text messaging, Twitter, Facebook? Further, in the unlikely event that unexpected company were to appear, would Southern hosts still feel compelled to prepare a hot meal for them? The likelier solution seems that everyone would head out to eat, or perhaps rip open a bag of chips. The more genteel among us might present unexpected company with a plate of cheese and fruit, maybe some coffee. In 1839, Mrs. Bryan expressed concern over such unannounced visitations, stating in The Kentucky Housewife that if one maintained a meal schedule and a “well ordered” table, “then there will be no danger of being frustrated by unexpected company.” Such alarming social possibilities were unconfined to the state boundaries of Kentucky and Louisiana. Mrs. Annabella Hill of Georgia declared in her 1872 cookbook of extra ham and tongue that “it is convenient to have these dishes on hand, as, in the case of having company unexpectedly … ”

Back to the other 70s, a century later, far across the old confederacy, and still worried about what to feed company. But in that intervening century, the casserole had come on awfully strong. In the Junior League’s Collection, Chicken and Asparagus Casserole Ole was marked “a good company dish.” Another recipe’s social function was inscribed in its very title, “Company Shrimp Casserole.” Slipped into the instructions for an Egg and Artichoke Casserole a few pages earlier was the aside that “this recipe tripled serves 30 for brunch,” a statement which calmly assumes that the cook might conceivably be in the social situation of having to feed brunch to 30 people. One can only hope that this company was not “unexpected.” That ubiquitous word, “company,” conjured a measure of care and formality not often bestowed on contemporary guests. One does not imagine a casserole recipe being marked “For Hanging Out” or “Good For Sitting Around, Just Chillin.’”

It is a shame that neither the old nor new editions of the Encyclopedia of the South (in other regards magnificent works) contain a casserole entry, although there may be a cross-listed reference that I missed. (I looked in the Foodways volume of the new edition but am realizing now that the entry might have rightfully been categorized in the Sports and Recreation volume.) No matter. Encyclopedia or not, every Southerner mentally cross-references casseroles under the term “comfort” in that old, hearty sense of the word that means to lend strength and fortitude, enabling the recipient to keep going just a little while longer. A younger generation even seems to ascribe, in addition to comfort, an improbable sexiness in the dish’s retro vibe. Iconic Southern bardess Lucinda Williams said as much a few years back in “Hot Blood,” a song about knee-shaking, cold-chill thrills — sensations imparted by someone whom is seen “in the grocery store buyin’ tomatoes for a casserole.” This same person, the object of the narrator’s admiration, was furthermore cool enough to drive with the top down and fix his own flat tire on the side of the road. Maybe there is hope for the casserole yet.

How strange that what used to be a source of proud hospitality — the confident ability to satiate an unexpected crowd at a moment’s notice — has become a source of culinary shame. I started the week distinctly embarrassed by my casserole longings, but concluded it convinced that our hurried, crass and distant culture sorely needs to learn the lessons of the casserole — even in the South where its doors-flung-open ethos reigned supreme not so long ago.

In the end, the curried chicken dish I made did its work. My husband had two helpings; I skipped side dishes entirely for the sake of a larger serving; and the inside baby enjoyed it immensely, judging by her enthusiastic kicks and punches. Our little family received the old solid comfort always promised and ever delivered by the casserole for three whole nights in a row. And when I decided that a fourth night of curried chicken casserole was a bit too much, I heeded the advice given by the Junior League of Monroe, Louisiana, and froze the rest of it. After all, we may have unexpected company. 

Curried Chicken Casserole

4 chicken breasts or equivalent, cooked and chopped
2 packages frozen broccoli, cooked
2 cans cream of chicken or mushroom soup
2 cups mayonnaise
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. curry powder
Paprika and bread crumbs for topping

Layer chicken and broccoli in 9×13 greased casserole. Mix soup, mayo, lemon juice and curry powder, and spread over chicken and broccoli. Sprinkle with buttered bread crumbs and dust with paprika. Bake 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

Photo by Cameron Nordholm, Flickr Creative Commons.

Carrie Allen Tipton lives in Houston, where she teaches piano and writes and lectures about classical music, American popular music, religion and Southern culture. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Georgia, as well as degrees in Music Education and Piano Performance. She has taught university classes on topics ranging from African American music to sacred music in the United States and classical music. Her work has appeared in Kirkus Review, Pop Matters, the Equals Record, Curator MagazineReligion Dispatches, Black Grooves and the Journal of the Society for American Music, among other places. 

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