This has been a challenging, no good, difficult 2017. Sure, sure, there has been positivity along the way. (Its persistence is shocking, isn’t it?) Yet there have been plenty of just-plain-tough days, too. And when things are low, when they come just shy of bottoming out, there is a dish I return to for solace: The Casserole.
Spoken aloud, the words are an incantation. They bring my best friends into the kitchen when I’m pushing against the empty, a lifeboat delivered in a perfume of lemon and curry. We whisper it across cellphone lines, the cascading syllables mouthed like lullabies. We find a stable center in a dish made of tender ingredients.
The casserole is a love letter from my 15-year-old self, a form of caloric communion. It fosters a shared reverie, though my three closest friends now live across L.A., Memphis and Jersey. The dish, for Ginny and George and me, is canonical. There are no additive adjectives, despite a quivering backbone of name-brand canned goods. Others may call it Chicken Divan, and that’s fine. For us it is more simply evoked, a primal form of reassurance.
I first met Ginny in high school, where we passed decidedly unliterary notes throughout English class, giggling until we rolled to the floor. Ginny’s mother, Peggy, was an airline pilot and would spend weeks in places that evoked my as-yet unrealized wanderlust: India, England, imagine that? The casserole was a gift she gave to Ginny, a mother hug wrapped in cheddar and crispy bread crumbs.
In turn, Ginny gave it to George and me.
Before it goes into the oven, the casserole quivers, shaking in its 9×13 pan. She’s not sure how things will pan out. In just less than a half hour, she emerges with a consistency that rights an upside-down world. The casserole is an act of magic, delivered through the unlikely medium of cream soup and mayonnaise. It is Better Crocker trapped in amber, hearkening to a time when we still believed food science could make us better.
You don’t even have to salt it. The factories do the work for you.
As teenagers, we would level a full casserole in minutes, savoring molten spoonfuls while we watched daytime TV makeover shows. At first bite, a 90s-style wallflower would walk on set, visibly worn by the twin trials of career and motherhood. Will she ever take time for herself? By the last, the woman’s hidden goddess is revealed. Drawing fingers around the edge of the pan, we’d lick the last of the curry-stained sauce from the edges. The makeover, the meal, they were a transformation of the mundane.
The dish soothes my nerves now just the same. Acolytes, my friends and I share cellphone photos of our latter-day casseroles’ rugged terrain, pre-shredded cheddar forming a thousand molten intersections. We speak of it with awe and introduce it to the people we love. In return, they make it for us, an act of Grace. (I love you for that, Grace.)
In my adult kitchen, Hellman’s mayonnaise and Campbell’s Cream of Chicken drop to the pan with a sucking sound and bind memories, broccoli submerged beneath a cheddar-sealed surface. Almost 40, I stand over the sink and lick the uncooked mixture from my fingers, blank trails drawn down the edge of a wooden spoon. Bright yet heady, the miracle of lemon juice and curry powder mixes on my hands with the fat of a torn-up rotisserie chicken. I smell the Madras beneath my fingernails for days.
In Patricia Bunning Stevens’ Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes, the etymology of the casserole’s formal name—Chicken Divan—is spelled out. It begins with an origin story. The dish, we learn, was first made in the 1950s at The Divan Parisienne restaurant in the New York Chatham Hotel, its name an attempt to evoke “continental elegance.” (This may be technically correct, but my casserole was invented in Ginny’s mom’s kitchen, and I have photos of her recipe cards to prove it.)
We can agree, at least, that the interest resides in the word “divan.”
“Originally Persian, it meant a sheaf of papers or a list, particularly of poems,” Stevens writes. “Adopted by the Arabs, it came to have a connotation of material wealth or possessions.” The Ottoman Turks used it to reference the imperial civil service, circa the 13th-15th centuries. “It met four times per week, presided over by the viziers, who sat on cushioned benches while the Sultan listened, supposedly unnoticed, behind a latticed window… Finally, in English, divan came to mean sofa, from the council chamber’s benches.”
Though my casserole, the casserole, is colloquial—no “divan” is needed to identify it—this is illuminating. Divan is to couch as casserole is to comfort. It is a place to settle and find reassurance. And indeed, it is a sign of wealth.
Vivian Howard pitched it perfectly in the introduction to a third-season episode of A Chef’s Life. “More than just something to eat, more than just a dish on the table, casseroles serve a purpose,” she says. “They elicit a response.” That response is non-verbal, guttural and born of flavor expectations. It is an acknowledgement of a primal need to transcend time and reconnect with our roots.
When a child is born, a loved one lost, casseroles are handed across thresholds, filling in where words fail. Laid proud on buffet tables, ugly pretty, they reveal delicate truths. “The goal of a casserole is to feed the hungry and the heartbroken,” writer Sheri Castle says. “When you don’t know what to say, a casserole says plenty.”
It is that mother hug from Ginny’s mom, from any mom. Eyes closed, we can picture their soup-splattered recipes, torn with tattered edges from long-shuttered magazines. We can see their recipes written long-hand on decorative recipe cards filed in special boxes, “My Favorite Recipe” printed on top. The casserole is consistent, stubbornly and beautifully. To change it is to risk dulling its effect. You can flirt with an off-brand soup…maybe. Yet it’s best to play it safe.
This way, the casserole can remain always what she is: a loving promise, perfectly preserved.