In a satchel of relics, accompanying the aforementioned slow-cooker, my mom enclosed Grandma Mimi's Recipe Box. Secured with a singular imposing speck of scotch tape, vital family secrets lurk within.
I hadn't opened the thrilling volume for quite some time
...since a notable day, circa 20 years ago actually, when I first discovered the place in this world where Miracle Whip and strawberry Jello comingle; the place where "ham" and "loaf" exist in the same sentence....
And I have been searching for my real family ever since.
Unearthing that "Tuna n' Rice casserole" recipe card was the exact same thing as stumbling upon surprise adoption papers.
My older siblings never played the orphan trick on me. But casserole did.
I wanted to be like the rest of the fam and adore those condensed cream of chicken soup and mayonnaise-margarine conglomerations with all of my heart
(Looking back, maybe that is when I learned to listen to my own heart rather than following the crowd... because it is still beating and quite honestly the chances of that would be pretty slim if I had been a fan of the Crisco-centric menu... How is everyone else doing!?)
*Note the unbridled display of sheer glee, above right, even a desperate hand reaching in to snatch a morsel from the banquet of white edibles. Note my face––this is what it looks like when 11-year-olds are simultaneously storing casserole in their cheeks just before they manage a stealthy napkin-disposal operation and terrified as to what could be so wrong as to deny them part in the collective frenzy of margarine laced ecstasy...
I don't think anyone ever noticed how many napkins I stashed. I don't remember ever having to talk to Mimi about my anti-casserole-ism. I do remember that there was always my special little tiny glass of orange juice waiting for me in the morning when I spent the night and that she always made lemon meringue pie for my birthday as that was the only pie I liked... (clue #329--I didn't care about pie. Pie is a religion on that side of the family... and of course the only one that I requested, no one else really cared about) But she put the types of candies in her candy dish that I liked. So we had some things in common.
But I think those were the only candies I had ever had. Much to the terror of my mom, Mimi was the one who gave me sugar when I was three and ruined my pure little hippie soul. My mom says I look like an "exotic" (read "ethnic" read "adopted") version of her...
I think that is very kind of you to say mom...
Mimi was a natural nearly platinum blonde with the palest blue twinkling eyes. She could sew absolutely anything and was unbeatable at the game of Scrabble. She had an insatiable passion for cigarettes and an enormous Buick with sinking burgundy velvet Benson-and-Hedges-scented seats. She said "zee-ro" (zero) and "warsh" (wash) in her sunny Kansan intonation. She cooked food that matched her complexion. The iconic dish requested by every single person in my "family" aside from me for their special birthday dinners, was actually a very old family recipe; a throwback to her Austrian ancestry (taking it WAYyyy back because both her family and Papa's family were definitely Conestoga-wagon-to-the-wild-west people). She would roll out thick homemade noodles the length of her entire kitchen counter and hand-cut them into long lengths. The accompaniment was some sort of white sauce "sawws"... shredded white chicken meat and a white mashed potato mountain with bright yellow "butter", known fondly as "chicken and noodles"... Maybe this photo illustrates a previous generation rendition of chicken and noodles... Arminta "Minnie" Odessa Riner, my great-grandmother, is at the head of the table. I am straining to see what is being served...
hmmm the fervor displayed in our generation's dinner photo, is absent her... noteworthy, as this crew was not fired up on condensed soup nor artificial colors and margarine... quite the contrary actually. I wondered if there were any of Minnie's generation's recipes in that box...
Opening the vault
I became increasingly panicked. Particularly disconcerting: the frequency of the word "surprise"
I am all for surprises... but some inner voice told me to be weary of those accompanied by "casserole" I do understand the idea behind hiding" a suspect vegetable such as eggplant in lasagne to show a weary child that such suspect vegetables are in fact delicious in the right context... but "hiding" a "surprise" of condensed soup (ie: poison) !?!?...enlighten me here please!
I dialed my mom "AreYouAliveOhMyGodHaveYouHadYourHeartChecked!?!?!"
Its a good thing she fled to the Caribbean when she did
Or I wouldn't exist. And she might be in a mumu in Wichita, Crisco-ing her way to an early grave...
I've never seen a casserole in the Caribbean... Maybe my anti-casserolian crusade along with penchant (bordering on addiction) for coconut, curry, spice... can be attributed to my Caribbean origins.
I asked mom about the evolution of Mimi's culinary roots... how did such an INSANE collection of recipes come to be?... Minnie, Mimi's mother, was apparently a gardening and preserving bad-ass who kept a grandiose orchard where my mom would go when she was a little girl to sit in persimmon trees. Minnie made everything from scratch and was a canning maniac; mom said her entire back porch was towering with pickles and preserves. What a glorious site. And a lot of work... Ah-ha!! Historical trends making sense and roots I can get down with...I mean, I have a long way to go before I'm at bad-ass level but
things were looking up. I remembered that sometimes traits skip generations... (I duly noted "what will become of this casserole gene!?" in my research to-do's column).
So Mimi grew up on delicious, fresh food... Mom said she was amazed by the recipe box because she can't recall her mom following many recipes. (OK so we have that in common too! Score!) Like many depression-era children, when "convenience" foods became all the rage in the '50s, they were more of a status symbol than a testament to flavor... Rather than question the taste of condensed soup, an upper-middle-class house wife in Wichita would go to bridge club and trade recipe cards with her buddies (and smoke long cigs and drink a little Scotch... ooh Scotch! We have that in common!!) I wish Mimi had cut out the Benson & Hedges-Crisco regime so that I could roll out homemade noodles with her now and sew all the elaborate polyester creations that I visualize, like those flash mumus
No no, don't worry woodsman, I don't see myself jumping on the mumu train...
But she had good style... and we both wore hats on our wedding days! So we have that in common.
Things were looking up, but I still cannot sort out how in the world my own bloodline could sing the praises of pointless amalgamations of overcooked mush.
I thought I had a decent chance of swaying my baby sister
(Coincidence that I appear to be of a different race?)
But as it turned out, genetics were against me again and with the exception of frozen peas, she only liked white food items from day one. I had waited nine years for a little comrade and I was still a culinary outlaw. I was probably too dramatic... (tact becomes moot when the subject of casserole is at hand) and I got pegged as The Food Police early on... She spent the majority of her young life taunting my hippie food and microwaving Hot Pockets to spite me. The summer after I graduated college, when she had sprung up to my 5'7" eye level (at the age of 12) she breezily declared that "mom had gotten much more lax" and let her "eat white trash food"........(enter memories of chopsticks and Nori rolls in my lunchbox...)
she grew up
turned platinum, went from "white trash food-loving" to just "really, really white" and together we decided to join bridge club and drink Scotch with umbrellas.
Don't you love these mystery stories, you never know what is going to happen!
Ha ha (that was the woodsman's "creative white" themed surprise birthday masquerade last year)
Now she's almost done with college. Her class put this cool anthology together and she even started to write about her own food adventures here. And I cried tears of joy. She goes to the farmer's market!! She likes green things!! My anti-Bagel Bite rants and vehement rage for all "processed cheese food products" had successfully influenced the future of food awareness! Hallelujah!!!!! It was a proud moment in my 31 years of Real Food Evangelism.
And then she called me up and asked me to write about casserole.
The joke was on the outlaw once again. They all think it is funny to watch me physically writhe at the mention of "moist mayonnaise."
There is nothing funny about casserole. (OK its sort of funny when my woodsman says "my baby don't make casserole, she makes CLASS-erole" when he is angling for any one-dish-wonder that I actually would participate in... such as a tagine or a fritatta or a wild mushroom tarte.
But there are a lot of absurdities surrounding the notion of casserole (the American definition of casserole that is); How did the innocent word go from defining the actual dish in which food is baked, in France, to a heinous conglomeration of overcooked mess in this country?
I did some research on the history. And then some further interviewing––more than one southern woman said "well, whyyy should we slave away in a hot kitchen all day" ie: the "one-dish-wonder" was a breakthrough for housewives...allowing them the freedom to go play cribbage and drink, come home, pop a casserole in the oven, spend a good couple of hours doing their hair and voila' dinner was on the table at 5:30 and they were dressed to kill with the children sorted and ready for daddy. The AMERICAN dream!
But things weren't lining up. I was seeing a trend in those casserole-making directions (besides the canned soup and margarine rule). If casserole is the ultimate in "convenience food"... I thought...what the hell is convenient about doing all the work of preparing perfectly acceptable ingredients and then combining them with some disgusting form of "binding" ie: condensed canned creamed soup and if you are lucky, both margarine and mayonnaise) and further overcook into a pile of mush?
Why not just do step one: prepare good ingredients seperately (don't bother with the work of opening cans, just pick fresh food from your garden or buy it from your local farmer) and prepare them seperately...
Other things I cannot understand about casserole include why on God's green earth anyone finds it acceptable to ever:
a) use condensed cream-of anything in anything that is intended for human consumption
b) (over)cook vegetables into oblivion
c) how jello exists and WHO decided it was a good idea to put things like olives IN IT!!?!
In a way, this whole casserole conundrum echoes the sheer absurdity surrounding much of American food policy. How can so many man-made chemicals be lawfully served under the guise of "food"?
"[Trans fats are the] biggest food-processing disaster in U.S. history... In Europe [food companies] hired chemists and took trans fats out... In the U.S., they hired lawyers and public relations people." --Prof. Walter Willett, Harvard School of Public Health
Take for example the history of Crisco! In the 1890s, the price of lard & tallow for soap & candle-making skyrocketed and an alternative was sought by Proctor & Gamble... A French scientist had previously developed the hydrogenation process (when unsaturated liquid oils are blasted with hydrogen atoms, which artificially transform them into solid oil to resemble LARD.) Meanwhile electricity was becoming widespread, rendering candles increasingly obsolete... so P&G, with a stroke of marketing brilliance, decided that since this hydrogenated product resembled food, they could sell it as food. Crisco was born and marketed as a healthier, cheaper replacement for lard and butter... Saturated fats were demonized and Crisco manufacturers dedicatedly spread the word that animal fats caused heart disease, hence the widespread belief that vegetable oils were superior to natural fats (unadulterated delicious lard and butter)... The full story is here
**Remember: real food is always, always always better than fake food; use lard or butter, not vegetable oil in any form.
So I meandered further into The Recipe Box...
As has always been my retort when taunted by my "comfort-food"-praising family members (don't ask me how it is considered comfort to ingest a cup of margarine...) I state that one can still have the flavors that supposedly transport you back to your carefree childhood...(or whatever nonsense I hear about the need to perform dangerous Crisco-laced traditions on occasion)
But we can remake the recipes with REAL FOOD. Imagine. I am not promising that my curry-laced bechamel will hold a candle to the original Chicken Divan recipe above... I am not claiming there is a replacement to be found in nature for a 1/2 cup of margarine and a can of cream of mushroom soup... but I will say that this dish below is actually a legit "convenience food" as it is simple and quick, yet offers a hint of the "classic" "comfort food" essence AND it is healthy.
My mom, juggling her roots in combination with the methodologies learned at the onset of her Caribbean escape in 1975, did offer us a hybrid version of this casserole growing up, more of a class-erole, as she opted for the addition of brown rice... and opted out of the margarine. I have two heroes.
And they both enjoy a delicious
Chicken Divan, Deconstructed.
1/2 organic chicken (I did two thighs for aesthetic purposes)
1/2 cup-ish mustard (I used partly a good French Dijon and part grainy)
A bit (1 cup-ish) of white wine (all I had was an ancient bottle of Riesling that someone left in my fridge... which was fitting to honor Mimi's Austrian roots and too sweet to drink but worked nicely. Any white wine would work)
Cooked Brown Rice - I do it this way (but don't pay attention to measurements)
1 crown of Broccoli
Olive oil, sea salt, pepper
*Organic potato chips to garnish... if you want to be historically accurate...
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp cornstarch or AP flour
1 1/4 c. warmed (whole, organic, obviously!) milk
1-2 tbsp good Madras curry powder (depending on the strength of flavor you prefer)
1 tsp lemon juice (or more to taste)
Salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste
*If you wanted to be historically accurate you would grate a bit of cheddar cheese into the bechamel... I couldn't stomach that notion so I opted out...
1) Make your brown rice however you like (I roll with this foolproof recipe) and don't burn it...
2) Preheat oven to 350 and place your chicken pieces skin-side up in an appropriately sized "casserole" dish so they fit somewhat snugly
3) Spread mustard all over them and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
4) Pour the wine around the chicken in the dish and put in the oven to bake until chicken is cooked through and juices run clear.
5) Chop broccoli into good-looking pieces however you like them and toss with enough olive oil to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
6) When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and turn up the heat to 425. Place your broccoli in the oven and roast for 10 mins, then toss and roast for about 10 more minutes, until it is a bit browned on the edges and a glorious bright green color.
While your broccoli is in its last 10 mins, make your Bechamel.
1) Melt the 2 tbsp butter in a little sauce pan over medium-low heat.
2) When it is entirely melted, sprinkle in the 2 tbsp flour or cornstarch and whisk quickly. If you haven't made bechamel, you might be alarmed at the weird mass that is formed; don't fear. Gradually pour in the 1 1/4 c. milk, whisking all along. Add the 1-2 tbsp curry powder and the 1 tsp lemon juice. Whisk Whisk Whisk. Your sauce will smoothen. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook for about 2 more minutes. Add salt and pepper and fresh nutmeg to taste.
Voila'! You have successfully deconstructed Divan before you had to construct it! You can serve any way that you like....
Any questions or concerns!?
I want to know your thoughts on casserole, what it means to you, and if you have ever felt like a culinary outlaw in your family...!?!?