The world in one dish

A one-pot meal is the poster child of easy cooking.

Today, it’s all about the spiffy Instant Pot, or if you didn’t get one of those for Christmas then surely you have a crock pot. My mom used to do meals in the electric frying pan.

But the queen of this category, the quintessential comfort food, is still the almighty casserole. Almost everyone can relate to seeing the casserole dish at the dinner table, and it always brings back memories.

The word casserole comes from an old Provençal word, “cassa,” meaning pan. The ingredients of the dish can vary greatly, sometimes including meat or fish and often using vegetables and cheese with some kind of starch; but the key is that it is made and served in the same vessel.

This is a “grass roots” meal if ever there was one.

What was the casserole you ate as a kid? At my house it was tuna casserole. My Mom made it often, in the same Pyrex dish every time, with Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and those crunchy “chow mein noodles” on top.

I suppose I was lucky, I loved Mom’s tuna casserole. For many people, childhood casserole memories are not so dear to their hearts, but they remain a family tradition.

Did you know that casseroles have existed for centuries in most western cultures?

There is a written recipe from the 13th century that describes an Italian dish called “de lasnis” in Latin. It called for sheets of pasta to be layered with cheese and mild spices.

I bet you can guess what we call it now. The migration of this dish to our continent might have first involved Thomas Jefferson, who brought a pasta machine home in the late 1700s after a trip to Italy.

His daughter eventually changed the cheese to cheddar from the most-likely Parmesan, and this adaptation was served at the White House and included in her 1824 cookbook.

In North America, the influx of immigrants in the 1900s from so many different cultures added many flavours and variations to the pot.

  • French cassoulet
  • English pot pies
  • Mexican enchiladas
  • Greek moussaka
  • North African tajines…

And then endless variations as people immersed themselves in a new culture and each dish was shared in a community.

The economic affordability of one communal dish for dinner made perfect sense with food shortages during the two world wars. Then, as the middle class grew and canned foods became popular, casseroles were an easy choice to feed a family.

Campbell’s Soup promoted their cream varieties as main ingredients, and home cooks became well versed at turning leftovers into new creations.

It’s amazing that some of these recipes are still being made, despite being maligned. How many Americans continue to make green bean casserole at Thanksgiving, regardless of admitting that they can’t stand the stuff?

The ability of a dish to be part of a culture, a right of passage even, is hard to keep alive in today’s world. But since casseroles are already staples, they appear to have been “grandfathered” into the traditions of the table.

The secret seems to be the history: you will likely be disappointed if you Google a recipe for green bean casserole, never having had it. But if you ate it as a kid, the nostalgia helps it taste better.

Perhaps the most enduring quality of the casserole is its ability to survive regardless of its status. In a world where status can be everything and branding is key, the everyday casserole marches on.

It is completely unpretentious and unassuming. It claims to be nothing more than a sustaining weeknight dinner. And at the end of the day, what could be wrong with that? Sometimes we just get too caught up in trying to impress and improve.

Some days, “grass roots” is what we’re all about.

Julia Child said it best. An icon in cooking who knew both Continental European cuisine and American tastes, she understood that making a meal is about sharing. Sharing sustenance and sharing time and traditions.

If you gussy it up, that’s just to add to the celebration, but it’s certainly not required.

“I don't use the word gourmet. The word doesn't mean anything anymore. 'Gourmet' makes it sound like someone is putting sherry wine in the corn-flake casserole.”

More Happy Gourmand articles

About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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