It’s Time To Bring Back The Mighty Casserole

Every fall, my cooking style becomes what our family calls “hot and a lot.”

by Jen McGuire

Casserole night hit hard and often in my house when I was a kid. It might have arrived on a Wednesday because it was raining, or on a Thursday because Friday was grocery day and the cupboards were nearly empty, or a Monday because we had pot roast on Sunday. Even pot roast Sunday sometimes became casserole night because my nana was mad at my grandpa. On those nights, pot roast was replaced by these awful beef patties cooked up in a gravy with mashed potatoes and canned mushrooms, and we all got to eat it on TV trays and watch The Wonderful World of Disney.

Sometimes we had casseroles because my mom was tired of thinking about dinner. She wanted to be able to just open tins and stir stuff without having to think about it. And so she would make some elbow macaroni, brown some ground chuck, open a can of stewed tomatoes, sprinkle a bunch of cheddar on top, and voila. I loved it.

I loved casserole night. I liked the surprise of it. I will admit to you that I liked the cut up bits of Spam or Prem or whatever fake meat product was on hand snuck in to the other regular ingredients. I liked the dramatic names of casseroles. Funeral potatoes made with cans of cream soups. Fiesta chicken. John Wayne casserole. I liked the smell of a casserole cooking in the oven when I came home from school on a cold winter day. I liked all the cheese holding stuff together in casseroles and the neat way it was served and the way I couldn’t always tell what I was eating, but mostly I liked the way we were all looser when on casserole night. The way my nana or my mom or one of my aunts would “throw something together” in a big dish to be eaten on our laps in the living room or cross-legged around the coffee table. Casseroles were the signal that the adults were giving themselves time off from being adults. The food version of putting on sweatpants after a long day in jeans.

That’s substantial. That’s elemental. That’s feeding a family.

By the time I became a mom, casseroles were canon to me. I was a bad cook, and casseroles, as I learned from my midcentury spiral-bound church cookbook passed on from my nana, were a very forgiving cuisine. As long as you have some shredded cheese, some canned peas, some cream soup, and some form of meat, supper is on the table. If you can add in sliced potatoes (also canned in my childhood, but I went rogue and used actual potatoes) plus a nice little bread crumb topping? That’s substantial. That’s elemental. That’s feeding a family.

My early casserole years were a case of trial and error. I got very wrapped up in the ’50s of it all, would see horrific concoctions like Monterey souffle salad and think “It sounds bad but…” In the early days, my sons came to the table with forks in hand like little weapons, steeling themselves against what could either be a delicious cheesy chili bake or a ham and Jell-O salad.

Eventually, I stopped trying to be something else with casseroles, and I embraced what they were invented to be for us: easy. Delicious. Fun. Comforting. Cheap. A way to stretch food and when I became a single mom — this was the big one. My cooking style became something our family calls “hot and a lot,” so now you know I managed to feed four sons on my own without them starving. Leftover chicken became leftover bruschetta chicken casserole, which I am sorry to tell you was made with stewed tomatoes, cheddar, and a box of stuffing mix. So basically about $7 worth of food if we’re playing The Price Is Right. I could layer in vegetables between meat and carbs, and if I mashed them up good, my pickiest of eaters wouldn’t be able to tell. I started mashing the potatoes with all sorts of vegetables until one son caught me and said “Now you’re making it so I can’t even trust potatoes anymore.”

Fall is, of course, peak casserole season. Nothing holds up in a casserole quite like an autumnal vegetable. A sweet potato casserole is basically dessert when you make it with maple syrup, which I always have on hand as a Canadian. A chili and cornbread casserole has just the right amount of spice for fall, and then there are the dessert casseroles. Your apple crisps (vastly superior to apple pie in my opinion), your bread puddings, your layered pumpkin trifle, which, if you have not tried, you really must.

Casseroles will also save you from yourself over the holidays. Brace yourselves, but I’m here to tell you that in my family we no longer do a turkey for Thanksgiving. I was tired of babysitting the turkey all day, and my sons became vegetarian anyhow, so we decided to all make casseroles for the holidays. Mac and cheese, green bean casserole, stuffing, all of the side dishes that are really the best part, stacked up neat in Pyrex towers in the fridge. We watch movies and play cards instead of cooking. We have bonfires in the backyard.

We all wear sweatpants. We all take time off from being adults. And we just eat and eat and eat for days — all thanks to the mighty casserole.