As a Michigan girl, I grew up on casseroles (or “hot dishes” if I was with Wisconsin or Minnesota relatives). Basically just store-bought ingredients bound together with cheese or cream soup, casseroles aren’t usually thought of as gourmet food. But when you have grown up with certain recipes, they become more than just a combination of ingredients. They do become something special. Something more than the sum of their parts.
To explain where I am coming from, first let me show my prized cookbook collection.
Those are my beloved church and family cookbooks. They are compilations of tried and true family recipes, submitted and published by moms, grandmas, aunts (and the occasional dad) who have spent years feeding families large and small. The pages are stained and dog-eared. The bindings are loose and bent. And the cookbooks are FULL of casserole recipes.
Cooking may be the Midwest’s primary love language, and casseroles our gift of choice. Since casseroles are cooked and served in one dish, they are the sensible choice when preparing a meal to share (and we Midwesterners are nothing if not sensible). Here are just a few of the reasons we might choose to share a casserole with others:
when a new family moves into the neighborhood
when a friend has a baby
when a friend has suffered a loss
large family dinners
Casseroles become a tangible representation of hospitality. “Welcome to the neighborhood, here’s a lasagna.” “You shouldn’t be on your feet after your surgery, I made you tater tot casserole.” “So glad you could come home for Easter! Help yourself to another helping of green bean casserole, you look skinny.”
It’s not the ingredients themselves, or even that someone took the time to put those ingredients together for your enjoyment, but the cumulative emotions that build up over years of multiple exposure to the same comforting recipes. That’s how comfort food works. The goodwill and the mushroom soup become one and the same.
Without your even knowing it, you grow to recognize that eating casserole means you are cared for. That kind of food association can be a beautiful thing. Whether you are far from home, or just having a crap week, it’s okay to cook up a comforting meal, using the same recipe your grandmother used, smelling the same smells you loved as a kid, enjoying the same flavors you have a hundred times before.
Does this casserole phenomenon exist outside of Middle America? I hope so. I hope it’s a common experience we all share. Now that Fall is officially here, I thought it was time to celebrate the humble casserole and all the memories that come with them. I hope you check back in throughout the week for all the recipes and share them with those you care for!
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