Emeril Lagasse, the gregarious chef who likes to yell “Bam!” as he hurls seasonings at food, devoted an entire program recently to casseroles. “Are casseroles necessary?” is a question that James Thurber and E. B. White might have asked, but didn’t. One churlish chef has called the casserole:
Some meat and rice and cheese and nameless goop
That’s smothered in cream of mushroom soup.
Webster’s says casserole is Provençal and originally just meant a saucepan, but this information is followed by an unappetizing modern definition: “A mold of boiled rice, mashed potato, or paste, baked and afterward filled with vegetables or meat.” No, thanks. The Oxford English Dictionary came up with this 1706 definition: “a Loaf stuff’d with a Hash of roasted Pullets, Chickens, etc., and dress’d in a Stew-Pan of the same Bigness with the Loaf.” Today, the casserole is a staple of traditional “potlucks,” church suppers, family reunions, funerals, and any meal in Minnesota. The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has written this paean:
Nothing warms the troubled soul
Like meat and stuff tossed in a bowl
And baked till brown on red-hot coal:
The glorious, gooey casserole!
But still I wonder, entre nous,
Isn’t it really just a stew?