squash casserole april 2016
photograph by Matt Hulsman

Do not disrespect the casserole. Years of cooking family dinners and meals for friends have placed me firmly in this humble dish’s camp. Foodie friends might balk at the cans of cream-of-mushroom and cream-of-chicken soup I keep on hand, stacked between the Luck’s pintos and Ro-Tel tomatoes. Yet the casserole has stood the test of time — and is even making a comeback these days, thank goodness. I think the renaissance has something to do with a love for all things retro, a revolt against kale, and the general tendency for what goes around to come around.

And maybe there’s something deeper. Like our lives, divided into stages — teens and young adult and young married and young parent and middle age and elderly — casseroles, too, are layered. You’ve got your starch: noodles, rice, potatoes, black or navy beans. Then comes what’s known these days as “a protein,” aka “meat”: tuna, chicken, ground beef. Next, if you’re really trying to hit all the food-group bases, is a vegetable: spinach, green beans, tomatoes, onions, even celery. Somewhere in there, there’s got to be the soup — I mean, the cream sauce — and the concoction isn’t complete without the topping (in other words, a layer of grated cheese, crushed potato chips, bacon bits, chow mein noodles, tortillas, and the like). Lacking a layer, the others yearn for completion.

At the moment, at least four different casseroles fill my freezer. There’s a Tex-Mex enchilada-y thing, a spaghetti-ish thing, a turkey tetrazzini, and a chicken-macaroni-spinach thing. My accordion recipe file has its own category for casseroles, and there you’ll find entries named for those people who introduced me to their creations: Meb’s Chicken Casserole (with canned French-cut beans), Betsy’s Spinach Casserole (with canned artichoke hearts), Louise’s Train Wreck Casserole (with cottage cheese, sour cream, and other dairy overload).

I have dog-eared Junior League and church cookbooks that I save solely for the casserole recipes I repeatedly return to. My name is inked on masking tape attached to the bottom of 11-by-13-inch Pyrex dishes that have been toted to and served from at funeral luncheons, potlucks, and book clubs. Peek in my cabinets, and you’ll find stacks of Pyrex casserole holders, from humble rattan to fancier painted, footed tole to elegant silver filigreed numbers.

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We can all admit that casseroles don’t even pretend to be low-cal. However. Their other advantages are legion:

1. Casseroles are the ultimate comfort food. For after tonsillectomies and wisdom teeth removals, for Sunday suppers and too-many-nights-of-eating-out, for family reunions and just-moved-in gifts, casseroles are heartwarming and thoughtful, and so very welcome.

2. Casseroles are mealtime multitaskers. A breakfast strata of sausage, egg-soaked bread, and cheese eliminates all the pesky timing of frying pans and hard versus soft egg preferences. At dinner, casseroles are a dang-near necessity for working parents.

3. Most casserole recipes feature the magic words freezes well. Few things make you feel as safe, snug, and smug as meals already assembled and stored.

4. Casseroles are microwaveable. When, for lunch, you’re craving “something warm” — as my son used to say when he’d had nothing but cereal for too long — simply scoop, and press Reheat.

5. Last, but not least: The only other thing you have to worry about is a salad.

O casserole, splendid workhorse of the kitchen! Surely no sweeter words were ever written: Heat till bubbly.

A Collection of Casseroles

The very first casserole recipe ever printed in this magazine, Sweet Potato and Orange Casserole, ran all the way back in 1942, courtesy of Mrs. Mary Vanstory Elzemeyer of Greensboro. To find Mrs. Elzemeyer’s recipe, along with many more (including the squash casserole pictured above) from the past 83 years, visit ourstate.com/casseroles.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.