February 7th, 2011
10:00 AM ET
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Tommy Andres is an associate producer at CNN. He's great at making lunch for other people.

In the rich, creamy center of the country, there is a certain category of dish that helps usher in life’s most meaningful moments. As hearty as the Midwest itself, these mixtures of all things good rival the importance of cake on birthdays, cookies on Christmas and turkeys on Thanksgiving.

They fit cozily into any occasion where meals are passed and smiles are shared. The craftings of Crock-Pots and Corningware adorn family tables on holidays, picnic tables in summers and office tables during potlucks. They can be a risk to try, a reward to savor or an endeavor to regret, but they are always served with a big spoon and good intentions.

Casseroles have the power to do magic. Don’t believe me? Have you ever heard of another food that can turn a condiment into a main ingredient? My mom makes a dish called Chicken Divan, which in her version is somewhere between 60 and 70 percent Miracle Whip. I think I just heard Jillian Michaels pass out.

chicken divan recipe
Recipe scanned from "Food for Thought" by the Friends of the New Hartford Public Library –1990

Casseroles are also eco-friendly, a final respite for forlorn and forgotten foods tucked in the corners of cupboards and dug deep from the dregs of refrigerator drawers. Casseroles are where leftovers go to live - or are at least be reincarnated into their next life as, well, leftovers.

Casseroles have the power to cover up the mistakes of even the most marginally talented cook, skewering nearly any kitchen quandary with one simple parry. Underdone? Add more cheese. Overdone? Add more cheese. Runny? Add more cheese. Tasteless? Add some salt. Oh, and more cheese. Like a gift wrapped in dairy, casseroles can hide just about anything below. Stocked with a meat, a starch and a vegetable, they render side dishes irrelevant.

Some of your favorite foods might be casseroles and you don’t even know it. Lasagna? Casserole. Macaroni and cheese? Casserole. Green bean casserole? Okay, you probably knew that one. At they’re best they are everything good – lasagna. At their worst they are everything bad – tuna noodle.

They're treasure maps left by grandmas and great friends on faded yellowed cards that lead to discoveries that can be created and concocted over and over again. They are the nightmare of your friend who hates when foods touch and the only reason cream of mushroom soup still exists.

So, unlatch that belt, lie back and sigh and take a moment to honor the unsung hero of the dinner table.

The good, the bad, the casserole. I salute you.

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Filed under: Books • Casserole • Dishes • The Sixties • Vintage Cookbook Vault • Vintage Cookbooks

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. Liz

    A soupcan-inspired cheesy Hamburger Helper themed casserole is not anything remotely associated with fine culinary cuisine but it resembles something that looks like warm dog vomit and looks even worse the next day. It's a lazy woman's stab at cooking.

    August 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  2. Liz

    Disgusting and I would rather eat menudo and cow's feet than something that looks like vomit. One says "you are what you eat" and casserole folks can be quite "homely". It's a free country and they have the right to stink up their kitchen with something that looks regurgitated.

    June 14, 2013 at 8:20 am |
  3. Rahma

    well, you seem to love casseroles very much and actually you made me to. for the first time i recognize how much we use them. do not you think that we must appreciate them more :).


    February 23, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  4. 4U Mister

    This is the type of food hubby hates. I use fresh ingredients, and low fat versions, no matter. Oh well, I like my cooking.

    February 9, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  5. Ware2Run

    Most of those WW2-era soupcan-inspired Casseroles that are made with high-sodium and/or highly processed ingredients are disgusting, especially those french fried onions and Hamburger helper. They may smell mmm mmm good and look appetizing the right out of the oven but look like gunky grub or vomit in the refrigerator the next day. Imagine all that crap that your system has to process. Try using a French or Mediterranean cookbook and use fresh ingredients.

    February 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • JEAN

      Sounds delicious. You can keep your mediteranean cook books.

      February 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
      • Pearl Nelson

        We only have one life - a serving or two of really delicious high sodium casseroles made with creamy fatty canned soups occasionally adds a bit of MMMMmmmmmmmm Good! to our lives. All things in moderation.

        February 8, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  6. trumod

    Scalloped tomatoes. No, I don't have the recipe at hand, but it was a big favorite of my kidhood: canned whole tomatoes, parmesan cheese and I forget what else, but (besides chocolate and peanut butter), what's better than tomatoes and cheese?

    February 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  7. Mary R

    WOW, the picture of the cookbook comes from books that my mother bought in the 1950's. I have the entire series. They are great cookbooks, and I often refer to them. In the series there are German, Italian, French, Scandanvian, Polish and
    Creole....plus a few more that I cannot remember off hand.

    February 7, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  8. SNovak

    Omg. I happen to own that casserole book (or booklet) and love it. So homey and delicious.

    February 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  9. Mildred

    For that one macaroni recipe- finnan haddie is a Scottish smoked haddock.

    February 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  10. Mildred

    Here's the typed version:

    Easy Chicken Divan
    3 or 4 chicken breasts, split Pinch of nutmeg
    2 cans cream of chicken soup 3 pkg. broccoli spears
    1/2 soup can sherry 1 stalk celery
    1/2 soup can mayonnaise 1 small onion
    1 c. sharp grated cheese

    Cook chicken breasts in water to which is added the celery and onion (30 minutes); cool. Remove meat from bones and skin. Cook 3 packages broccoli as directed until just tender. Combine soup, sherry, mayonnaise, and cheese. Layer broccoli in bottom of a large pan. Put chicken on top; cover with sauce. Sprinkle with nutmeg and a few bread crumbs. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
    Annette Barber

    February 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • sharcc

      Wow. That is quite the fat bomb recipe. I like how the soup can is reused as a measuring tool. Very thrifty. I am reminded of my Mom's old Quiche Lorraine recipe. It calls for eight eggs, three cups of heavy whipping cream, one pound of bacon plus some of the drippings and a pound of Gruyère cheese. Gotta love the recipes from the 60's and 70's. Weiner Crown anyone?

      February 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  11. Pearl Nelson

    I used to make a casserole that had chicken breast chunks covered in bread crumbs and browned, quartered artichoke hearts, sliced black olives, noodles ( noodles back then – never heard of pasta) , sour cream, and cheddar cheese soup gooped all together and covered with buttered bread crumbs, then baked. I can still smell and taste it but I don't dare eat it anymore - heart attack served in corningware. It was my family's favorite and was so delicious.

    February 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  12. sharcc

    Mom used to make a lot of casseroles when I was growing up. But they were never the usual tuna noodle or green bean casseroles like every one else I knew. She made something called Montespan, which is an old Bermudian casserole that calls for pawpaws but you can easily substitute zucchini. I loved it. I still make it when I have too many zucchini coming out of the garden. These days I use ground turkey or chicken but you can use beef. Mom also used to make Enchanted Broccoli Forest, which is an old Mollie Katzen recipe. It is a rice based casserole in which you leave the stems on the broccoli and stand them up like trees in the rice, creating a "forest". Kids love this one because they get to eat broccoli trees. I think Mom made this one when money was tight and she didn't want to/couldn't spend it on meat. The old Junior League Cookbooks are great fun with loads of interesting regional recipes.

    February 7, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  13. Pam

    Oh yes, and those cruncy canned onions rings that go on top of that green bean casserole also contain msg. Not only are you stuffed at a holiday meal, but guaranteed to get a headache.

    February 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  14. Pam

    The "cream of.." soups in these recipes contain msg – who wants to feed their family that?

    February 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  15. alr

    At the risk of causing a riot, I am so anti-green bean casserole it is not even funny. It was NEVER a staple at ANY holiday meal until I married my husband. He waited a couple of years before introducing it to my family and sadly, they liked it so now alongside the broccoli casserole (my favorite) sits his sickly looking green bean casserole. Luckily, I only have to see maybe three times at year at most.

    On the plus side, I love most incarnations of macaroni and cheese casseroles. It's hard to screw those up.

    February 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • sharcc

      I thought I was the only one! I had never even heard of it until I went to my first Thanksgiving Dinner at my ex-in-laws in my 20's. Everyone there took big heaping spoonfuls of it and went back for seconds! I just thought it was soooo gross. Why ruin good green beans like this? I really don't get the French fried onions on the top. Apparently they come from a can? Is that true?

      February 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
      • alr

        yes, the french fried onions come straight from a can. French's makes them. I'm not a huge fan of green beans anyway but I do like them in some things but to mix them up in a casserole with cream of mushroom soup? Total yuck!!

        February 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  16. atlanta 123

    I love casseroles but thought I was alone in this! My family's favorites are poppy-seed chicken, chicken noodle, and Itlalian beef (leftover spaghetti sauce with pasta.)

    February 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  17. Heather

    Casseroles are a comfort food, in addition to being an easy dish to make with leftovers. Why would someone buy them frozen when they're so simple to throw together? My mom used to make a corned beef casserole, which I still make to this day on winter days. I've had a boyfriend tell me it smells like dog food. Whatever, I love it anyway!

    February 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  18. Sherry Corwin

    Food an essential, and old cookbooks a must.I have nearly the whole series of these paperback cookbooks (found in the boxes of handwritten recipes from Great-great mothers to present) . From kitchen hints to curing pork. Casseroles made easier by Stouffer's and etc. now overshadow the convenience and cost of these true blue creamy delights of days past. I enjoy all these old and new recipes and rarely buy frozen, there is just something about food preparation that calms the soul and like a good casserole warms the spirit.

    February 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  19. BHS

    Isnt Shepherd's Pie a sort of casserole? It was always a favorite of mine growing up. And my mother's Tuna Casserole was a favorite as well. We ate a lot of it in the 70's. There were usually 3 or 4 of them at any given church pot-luck dinner.

    February 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  20. thomibear94

    My favorite casserole is green chile chicken. Out here in NM it's practically a given and a requirement to know how to make that. There's a lot to be said for Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup too.

    February 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • lmw

      Recipe please! :-)

      February 7, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  21. Mary

    I have a Southern Living cookbook that give instructions for making your own casserole. You pick which protien, sauce, veggie, and extra (like garlic, onion, etc) that you like. The recipe provides the measurments of each to use and some ideas as to what tastes good with what. It's kinda fun. I forgot about that until now. I'll have to go home tonight and look that up. Thanks, Kat!

    February 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Mary @ Mary

      Don't forget to post some recipes!

      February 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  22. Barbara

    Don't get this reciipe... The comment talks about rice but the recipe doesn't call for any.. Don't they read or eidt what they post?

    February 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Jerv@Barbara

      Oh, I see what you are talking about. I think maybe the paragraph above the "Easy Chicken Divan" is the end of a different chicken recipe?

      February 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      That's the end of another recipe atop the Easy Chicken Divan.

      February 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
      • Jerv@Kat

        Yup, thought so. I think ol' Barb was getting in a little bit of a stitch there.

        February 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Recut the image to nix confusion. Hope that helps.

      February 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  23. jillmarie

    I love making casseroles! My favorites are Eggplant Parmesan, a vintage vegetable casserole recipe, and of course, mac n' cheese. I'll have to make my veggie casserole, it's been a long time, thanks for the idea.
    I loved all the "rules"- add more cheese to everything- funny.

    February 7, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  24. Panda1895

    "At their worst they are everything bad – tuna noodle."

    Tuna Noodle Casserole as my mom makes it is my favorite comfort food. She had made this for me after many a break up, job loss, and for celebratory meals. She's told me how to make it before, but I have slept since then and can never remember everything she puts in it. One of these days, I will write it down.

    "Add more cheese." – Yes, please. I love cheese! MmmMMmMmMm

    February 7, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Mildred

      I think Tuna Noodle got a bad reputation because too many people don't think about how they're making it.

      February 7, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • fla mom

      My mom made tuna casserole when my dad was unemployed for a very long time in the 70's. She could feed a family of four very inexpensively. Still can't stand the thought of eating it again. Brings back bad memories.

      February 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  25. Mildred

    As for casseroles, my mom didn't really make them a lot (or they were so forgettable, like a lot of her cooking). I haven't worked with them that often myself, but I should get into the habit of it- they make great lunch portions for work.

    February 7, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  26. T3chsupport

    Kinda made me wanna wave my lighter around in the air. But I'd probably get in trouble for that at work... or at least looked at weird.

    February 7, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  27. Mildred

    I was in an antique and used book store this weekend in Saratoga, NY (of horse racing fame).

    I didn't have the money or shelf space to buy all of the cookbooks, but this is what I picked up:

    Booklet (1955 49 pages- index on inside back cover)- Gold Medal Jubilee: Select Recipes 1880 – 1955. "A treasury of favorite recipes modernized by Betty Crocker". Recipes by decade, including some transcriptions from other books/pamphlets produced by Gold Medal Flour over the years. Also includes pictures and drawing of stoves/ovens of each decade, the type of car available, a fashion shot of a "typical" lady of the time, news headlines for some of the years in the decade, popular songs, and old Gold Medal Flour ads.

    Book (1968 104 pages)- Recipes: The Cooking of Vienna's Empire. Part of the Time-Life Books Foods of the World Series. I already have a couple of these from the 1967-68 run, which are smaller spiral bound books. Time-Life then switched to a larger hardcover format in 1970.

    Book (1974 156 pages)- Bach for More: Fireside Classics. Fundraiser cookbook for the Cleveland Orchestra. They apparently did three all together (so I have to get the other two... Bach's Lunch and Bach for an Encore). Recipes come from members of the orchestra and people from Cleveland, like Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller and Rene Verdon, White House chef, 1961-1966. [and in checking the Cleveland Orchestra's website, they published a new cookbook in 2010 called Kitchen Conductor: Scores of Great Recipes.

    Booklet (1976 36 pages)- Dole Fresh Mushroom Cookery. Contains hints on shopping for mushrooms, Do's & Don'ts, and recipes for every type of meal (except dessert).

    February 7, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Mary

      How fun! I love old cookbooks.

      February 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  28. Truth

    Casseroles were a staple when I was a kid. I always knew that Thanksgiving or Christmas would be followed by turkey tetrazzini...

    February 7, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  29. Mildred

    Jerv- Kat didn't post it, I think. Which means that she's getting other staff into the mix!!!

    February 7, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Jerv@Mildred

      Ah, I see that Thomas Andres posted it. Still, too early in the morning (or late at night) for me.

      February 7, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Oh – the "posted by" link serves as the byline. Other CNN folks have always written, but Sarah and I post.

      And yes, I was up at 3:30.

      February 7, 2011 at 9:17 am |
      • Jerv@Kat

        Must have been one heluva party!

        February 7, 2011 at 9:22 am |
      • Mildred

        How long *was* that Super Bowl party? :)

        February 7, 2011 at 9:40 am |
      • Kat Kinsman

        That all depends on how you define "party." If this to you means "curled up with your greyhound on the couch writing Eatocracy posts" then yes - RAGER!

        February 7, 2011 at 9:41 am |
      • Pam Thrasher

        "curled up with your greyhound on the couch writing Eatocracy posts" sounds like a greyt was to spend the evening. Greyhounds are awesome! I have two.

        February 7, 2011 at 11:25 am |
      • Kat Kinsman

        You're chipping! I have a whippet as well. Long live the pointy dogs!

        February 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  30. Jerv@Kat

    This was posted at 03:30 AM ET??

    February 7, 2011 at 8:39 am |
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