My mother grew up in the rural area around Estelline, Texas, a tiny town located halfway between Wichita Falls and Amarillo. The backyard of her small wooden house was filled with chickens, goats, pigs, and a couple of cows. On the west side of the house, there was a large vegetable garden. My grandmother would walk out back around 3 pm, wring the neck of a chicken, and pluck out the feathers, while my mom and her sister harvested tomatoes and okra for the evening supper.
She escaped Estelline in the late 1940s and headed to Dallas. She married my father in 1950, and, just before I was born in 1952, they moved into a house near Churchill Way and Forest Lane, in what was then Far North Dallas. The mess that is now the LBJ Freeway was a vast prairie where my friends and I rode horses.
My mother was never a great cook, but she was delighted to have a kitchen filled with high-tech appliances. The cookbooks lined up against the GE refrigerator (with a built-in freezer!) included Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook, Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, and a dog-eared copy of The Casserole Cookbook.
I can still see the shelves of her pantry lined with cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup; boxes of Duncan Hines cake mix; jars of Kraft French dressing; and small cans of deviled ham, chicken, and Vienna sausages. It was the age of convenience. She no longer had to pick vegetables. She simply pulled out a can of “kitchen-sliced” green beans from the valley of the Jolly Green Giant and heated them up.
Making casseroles was her specialty. On Sundays, she mixed tuna and noodles with cream of chicken soup, frozen peas, chopped pimento, and margarine, and baked it in her revolutionary rectangular Pyrex pan. Once the casserole began to bubble over, she removed it and covered the top with crumbles of salty Lay’s potato chips. To this day, I still add crushed potato chips to tuna sandwiches.
The families in our neighborhood were tight. Households took turns hosting weekly dinner parties. While we kids flew down the streets on bikes, our moms scurried across the street with covered dishes. Pot holders were a big deal. They not only protected hands from the heat, they were a fashion statement and played a pivotal role in the presentation of a casserole. My mother always paired her pot holders to the occasion. For fancy dinner parties, she wore bright red-and-white, polka-dotted mitts to lift the top off the dish for the big reveal, releasing puffs of smoke scented with hominy, mushroom soup, and crushed cornflakes.
Casseroles followed me through my childhood and into my teens. Every church function, school lunchroom, or camp meal contained various mashes of cheese, cream soup, and mystery meat. The first time I invited a date to my house for dinner, I called my mom and asked for her green bean casserole recipe—you know, the one topped with Durkee onion rings. The boy and I ended up dating for four years. After we broke up, he called me every Thanksgiving and asked me for the recipe. He’s married now, but, 40 years later, his wife still makes it for him.
Occasionally, I treat my family to my killer macaroni and cheese casserole filled with ham. It is nasty good but time-consuming. It probably takes me an hour to put it together and 45 minutes to bake. My mom was liberated by the fact that she could fix a home-cooked meal for her family in less than two hours. I am suffocated by the pressure to find two hours to cook. Besides, I’ve moved past Pyrex and on to the reusable rectangular aluminum tins filled with King Ranch casserole in the refrigerated case at Celebration Market. It not only saves time, but the cheese doesn’t bubble over and stain my hot pink oven mitts decorated with turquoise peacocks.