"I have to write an 800-word article about casseroles," I tell my sister. "How the fuck am I supposed to write 800 words about casseroles?" My sister, who has a lavish garden, raises chickens for the fresh eggs, and doesn't let her kid touch refined sugar, hesitates. "I fed my family a casserole the other day," she finally says. "Macaroni, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and Velveeta."
My mom chimes in. "I used to feed you chili casserole all the time. Remember, I'd put a layer of Hormel with cornbread on top?"
Do I ever. Everyone remembers casserole. One friend's mom specialized in "Hamburger Pie," a casserole which he remembers in detail, and with considerable affection. Another's made something called the "Cheesy Corny Eggy Thing," which he recollects in equal detail, though with significantly less affection (it involved a can of creamed corn and Egg Beaters).
Whatever Mom called it, the building blocks were the same: green beans and fried onions. Ground beef. Condensed soups. Bread crumbs. While the term itself comes from the French word for saucepan, and refers to "a dish in which food may be baked and served" (according to Webster's), in our cultural parlance the term has come to signify more than a mere piece of cookware: It evokes childhood, family picnics, and working moms who are too tired at the end of the day to do more than dump a can of cream of mushroom soup on some tater tots and call it good. Various hastily consulted online sources indicate that, while the dish has been around forever, it became widely popular during the Great Depression as a way of stretching leftovers and creating a warm, filling meal out of relatively inexpensive ingredients, like canned soups and cheap cuts of meat.
Try something next time you're online: Take a break from compulsively updating your Facebook status, and spend a few minutes browsing casserole recipes. You'll find an impressive catalogue of dishes that sound cheap, easy, and often pretty good, in a gut bomb-y sort of way. Crescent Roll Casserole. Taco Casserole. Extra Creamy Tater Tot Casserole. Cowboy Casserole. Grits Casserole. The casserole is alive and well, both in the hearts and cookbooks of moms everywhere, and in the irony-drenched corners of Brooklyn, where hipsters congregate each year for the Annual Casserole Party (organized by a woman who blogs at casserolecrazy.com).
So... should the non-moms among us reacquaint ourselves with the casseroles of yore, in a new era of higher food prices and shrinking budgets, with an eye toward both penny-pinching and retro-kitsch hipster cred?
Return to the casseroles of our youth? Sure, and let's all just take a nice gas tax holiday, while we're at it. Most casserole recipes rely on the exact foods we shouldn't be eating—weird, over-processed canned foods and cheap, factory-produced meat (you don't waste quality meat by covering it in enchilada sauce and crumbled taco shells and throwing it in the oven for an hour). They're calorie dense, sure: A hash-brown casserole covered in cheese is cheaper and more filling than, say, fresh fruits or vegetables. But while I in no way dispute the culinary merits of any food involving the phrase "covered in cheese," I do have high hopes of making it to old age with three or fewer chins, even on a writer's salary. The relationship between poverty and obesity is depressing enough without the local alternative weekly getting all "let's make a 49-cent nacho casserole" about it.
Nor can I bring myself to suggest that we all embrace casserole-chic and start arguing about whether the best fried onions are made by French's or Durkee. While I appreciate irony, and I appreciate food, I cannot and will not support ironic food. (It's one thing to go all so-not-cool-it's-cool about, say, footwear—but you don't have to put those Keds inside of you.)
Does this mean we should forsake the casserole altogether? Abandon the practicality and affordability of an easy dish you can quickly assemble and throw in the oven and ignore for half an hour, thus buying yourself a few precious minutes to put your feet up and have a cocktail because dammit, it's been a long day at work and Mommy needs a drink?
Hell no. Remember: A casserole ain't nothing but a serving dish you can put in the oven. There's no need to rehash the Egg Beaters-laden mistakes of the past, and we're not going to get anywhere by adhering to the consumption patterns of the past—a truism that holds even when it comes to nostalgic-infused dishes like the lowly casserole.
Step one: Buy a casserole dish. Go to the Goodwill, there's plenty; or ask your grandma, I guarantee she's got a few extras. Step two: Look around your kitchen. Got half an onion waiting to get used, and some leftover rice or pasta from lunch? Maybe some tofu that's been sitting in the fridge a few days too long, zucchini from an over- enthusiastic garden, or leftover chicken from a potluck? Throw together a simple béchamel sauce from flour, milk, and butter, maybe some cheese if you're feeling it, or spice up some canned tomato sauce with some rosemary you stole from the neighbors. Those stale bread heels you've been avoiding eating? Voila, breadcrumbs. Step three, put it all in the oven and see what happens. Step four, give it a ridiculous name, and make it over and over so that one day when you have kids you'll be able to cook it up while juggling six screaming babies and a migraine like you wouldn't believe.