I think that we all have memories of family dinner with Mom bringing one single bubbling hot dish to the table. I have a favorite casserole from childhood, something that my mother called “goulash” that I’m sure bears little resemblance to the actual Hungarian dish. I’m not sure that I’d even like it if I ate it today, but the thought of the curly noodles and the hearty aroma is enough to make me still believe it was practically gourmet cuisine.
The casserole as a meal is an American standard and for many years was a go-to for countless busy mothers. The name of the dish comes from the name of the vessel in which it is cooked. The word casserole is derived from the French word for “sauce pan” and made its way into the English lexicon in the early 1700’s. According to The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, a casserole is a “dish or pot made from material such as glass, cast iron, aluminum, and earthenware in which food is baked and often served.” The basic concept of a one-pot dish is hundreds of years old: Spanish paella, British shepherd’s pie and pot pie, Italian lasagna and macaroni and cheese. But, the casserole as we know it today is a distinctly American invention.
A traditional casserole includes some form of protein, a pasta or rice filler, vegetables, and something to bind it together, like stock or soup. They are versatile and can be made from virtually anything, which is what allowed them to become a meal time standard. The casserole as a main dish began to appear on our tables in the late 1800’s. However, their popularity grew around the time of World War I, when families were encouraged to conserve resources. A Propaganda-style poster of the day encouraged families to eat “one less ounce of meat a day” and depicted a mother embracing her thin, emaciated children. Casseroles allowed families to ration their meat by mixing it with the other ingredients, so supposedly no one would notice that less meat was being served.
This same technique became a necessity for many during the Great Depression, when ingredients were scarce and families struggled to keep food on their tables at all. One-dish meals allowed families to stretch resources because there were often leftovers. Cooking a casserole even meant less use of the stove and less dish washing. In fact, tuna noodle casserole became so popular during this time that it appeared in The Joy of Cooking as an easy recipe to make when funds were tight.
The height of popularity for the casserole came in the 1950’s. By then, both Pyrex dishware and Campbell’s Soup were popular and easily accessible to most women. Campbell’s heavily advertised their products as essential casserole ingredients. In fact, the soups were so ever-present in American kitchens that most cookbooks included recipes with Campbell’s soups (particularly Cream of Mushroom) as ingredients. The 1955 edition of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook featured a chapter on casseroles with dozens of recipes using every readily-available protein.
In the 1960’s casseroles became a bit less fashionable and were seen as more of a working class dish. This was at least partially due to the arrival of Julia Child on the American woman’s radar. Her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published in 1961 and became a runaway success. This book made women feel less intimidated to attempt cooking more elaborate meals by giving detailed drawings and easy-to-understand instructions. By the time that Child’s television show, The French Chef, premiered in 1963, her pragmatic approach had convinced many to experiment in the kitchen.
But, the casserole has never disappeared completely from the American culinary radar. There are entire cookbooks dedicated to casseroles. I’m sure that most of us have memories of casseroles being placed on the dinner table by mothers or grandmothers. Perhaps your remembrances are good; possibly, the thought of those meals causes you to shudder or your stomach to drop. Even so, the ease of preparation and the availability of ingredients mean that the casserole isn’t going to vanish from the American dinner table any time soon. I know that some of you are ready to grab your can opener (and throw your calorie counters out the window) to recreate some warm dinnertime memories tonight.
I still use that very cookbook, esp. for casseroles (also known as “hotdish”)
My Mom still has that cookbook. I remember using it 40+ years ago.