How Casseroles Conquered Comfort Food
Casseroles have a special place in the hearts (and stomachs!) of many Americans. A nostalgic convenience food par excellence, these dishes first gained renown in the Great Depression, growing in popularity throughout the 20th century.
While casseroles have been declining in popularity for decades, they have recently experienced a resurgence — and for good reason. The casserole of today is a far cry from what it was 100 years ago, and this all-American classic is currently evolving well past its humble roots.
The Original Casserole
Consider your favorite casseroles, from tuna-noodle to tater tot. These and more are all-American inventions with roots in European cuisine. According to Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and co-author of The Lost Art of Real Cooking, the very first casseroles were ancient dishes made in clay vessels. With the rise of iron and stoneware, however, he says, "casseroles kind of disappear."
It's not as though Europe doesn't have its share of baked dishes, from lasagna al forno to shepherd's pie to cassoulet. But whereas European "casseroles" are time-consuming beasts, demanding homemade noodles, long-simmering stews, or finnicky pastry, all layered with precision, the American answer is as easy as… well, casserole.
Rise of the All-American Casserole
The easy, all-American baked casseroles that we know and love depended on two game-changing inventions — oven-safe glass and canned convenience foods — before they could conquer the country. In time, of course, the sturdy glass baking vessel would take on the name of the dish it was used to make. We grab a casserole to make a casserole. With the advent of convenience foods, such as Campbell's soup, in the late 19th century, home cooks began to craft dishes made entirely of easy-to-combine ingredients added directly to the glass casserole dish in which they were baked.
"The whole thing about the casserole is that you're just dumping things in," says Albala. "You don't have to layer or carefully prepare any part of the dish."
The dishes gained further renown during the Depression and World Wars. During times of hardship and adversity, starches and vegetables helped extend small portions of meat and make the meal more filling.
Recipes for different casseroles soon began to appear on the backs of food packaging, from tuna fish casserole on Jay's Potato Chips to Campbell's Green Bean Casserole on the back of the brand's cream of mushroom soup. These recipes, explains Albala, were "targeted" to mid-century housewives, a subset of people who "had the perception that they were busy, maybe they weren't skilled and didn't know how to cook."
"It's the way the industry sold these products to them," he says. "They told them: 'You're busy, you're harried, you don't know how to do this. You make a dish and your family doesn't like it. Your self-worth depends on this, so don't mess it up!"
Recipes that fit the bill include classic Green Bean Casserole, Texan King Ranch Chicken Casserole, Dorito Casserole, or Hot Tamale Pie. These dishes rely on shortcuts like condensed soup, canned Ro-Tel, store-bought chips, freeze-dried onions, or cornbread mix. While delicious, these casseroles also, explains Albala, "reinforce the deskilling of American cooks."
"Because there is no skill involved in it, and because they begin to rely on it, they ipso facto don't get skilled in cooking," he says. "You start doing it, and you don't develop the skills that just come from practice."
A New Casserole for Our Modern Times
Casseroles fell out of vogue as Americans began to rely on fresh foods lower in sodium and processed additives. But more recently, the casserole has experienced an odd resurgence that seems to directly oppose everything the simple dish once stood for.
Cooks craving the flavors of their youths without all of the additives have recreated casseroles in exciting ways, ranging from the from-scratch tuna noodle casserole to what Albala calls "the hipster green bean casserole," a more time-consuming version of the classic made with homemade sauce and fresh green beans.
And for Albala, this isn't the end of the casserole revolution.
"Once this whole pandemic is over, we're going to be thirsting for high-end food, eating in restaurants again. We'll want exotic, expensive, intellectually stimulating food, and what that means is science-driven food," he says. "I think that means that the classic casseroles will probably come back."
Of course, this doesn't mean the sodium- and preservative-laden casseroles of yore.
"It's not gonna be an exact repeat of what happened before," says Albala. "People don't want to buy stuff loaded with chemicals or whatever. But that doesn't mean that they're above using cans or convenience foods or even things that are frozen or instant."
The casserole's next act could include recipes featuring better-for-you packaged foods, premium ingredients, like wild-caught tuna and all-natural broths sold in environmentally-friendly, recyclable glass jars. Or who knows? Maybe they'll even inspire something entirely new.
As Albala says, "There are a hundred things you can do with a casserole."
Check out our collection of Casserole Recipes.