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Are Casseroles Going Extinct?

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Nov 13, 2012 7:00PM

Back in the day, family meals, including Thanksgiving, used to pivot on casseroles. In our personal case, they went into extinction along with the Rockwellian family unit, but this is fairly shoddy data on which to prognosticate the casserole's demise. Very likely, these dishes will be with us as long as families continue to gather round oblong tables, so there’s no foreseeable end in sight. Still, for as many restaurants as serve up turkey and the trimmings for those who’d rather go out to count their blessings, we’ve noticed a conspicuous absence of casseroles on the menu. And frankly we’re troubled.

Why do we need casseroles at all, you ask, especially at a meal specifically designed to strain our insides to bursting? Because they are possibly the one thing on this planet that can be everything to everybody. While most of us live out our lives regularly displeasing and disappointing our friends, family, employers, and Greenpeace canvassers in some capacity, casseroles elicit approval wherever they go, even—maybe especially—when they’re predictably terrible.

If food were to require itself to survive, it would undoubtedly dine on casserole, because casserole all but embodies edible anomie; there simply are no rules. You can freely infuse it with vegetables, veal, mutton, cheese, chicken, stocks, beer, pastas, potatoes, and euphoria-laced illegal substances. Casserole is mutability itself. And those who make casseroles become like laughing, dimpled children defacing walls with fingerpaint: no matter how dubious the final product, the act of creation itself is so damn timeless that everyone thinks it's adorable. Wanna be cute this Thanksgiving? Make a casserole with chocolate chips and bok choy. Your most fault-finding cousins won’t be able to resist a smile.

For our part, we viscerally recoiled from the broccoli, cheese, and almond casserole our Aunt Millie made every third week in November. We spooned a microscopic sample onto our plate aside billowy mountains of mashed potatoes, hoping the otherwise bountiful mélange of green beans, cranberries, corn, turkey, and dressing would overshadow the near invisibility of the other. Moreover, owing to this annual pairing of broccoli and Velveeta, we’ve shied away from casseroles at large ever since, wary of the untold incongruities lurking within those starchy depths.

So yes, we’ve been guilty of reluctance to dive into the casserole of life, as it were. But that has only forced us to acknowledge its value all the more, which is essentially that of the unknown. Because casseroles possess the potential to be and contain almost anything, they remain the wild card, the single dynamic culinary element, of this most predictable of meals. A casserole is the modern family crest. Plus, every kid needs something not to like amid the tempting array of otherwise alluring Pilgrim staples.

But casserole, we fear, has simply gone out of fashion, if indeed it ever enjoyed any real glamor. Fashion shouldn’t dictate everything, however. Not kitten-print knee socks for grown women, not tastefully coiffed mullets, and certainly not casseroles, possibly the one thing that a cook can’t get wrong, even if your nearest and dearest can barely choke it down. If you can fingerpaint, you can casserole. And for the simplicity of that, we’re grateful.