My Mother’s Casserole

My mother was a wonderful woman: intelligent, kind and loving. She loved her husband and three children dearly, and when she was widowed at the age of 34, she did her very best for us in difficult circumstances.

She had many fine qualities, but she would be the first to admit she wasn’t much of a cook. She didn’t feel bad about that — she thought of herself as a modern, Post-War woman, and embraced all labor-saving appliances and gadgets, and time-saving frozen and packaged foods. She always baked our birthday cakes using cake mixes. She baked cookies, but we were among the first to use the rolls of refrigerated cookie dough. She loved the modern convenience of frozen TV dinners, instant oatmeal, whipped cream in an aerosol can, crescent rolls from dough that popped out of the tube, and recipes that started with a can of soup.

Her favorite recipe was her special casserole. She originally got the recipe from a magazine feature with recipes from singer Kate Smith, best known for belting out “God Bless America.” We originally called it “Kate Smith’s Casserole” and then “Mummy’s Casserole” and eventually “Mummy Mummy Casserole,” a name from the period when my little brother created possessives by doubling names. Somehow that’s the name that stuck, although I find it embarrassing to use in conversation, even just with my family. casserole is a mix of pasta (we would have said “macaroni”) with diced onion, green pepper and ground beef browned in a skillet, canned stewed tomatoes, topped with slices of Velveeta. I didn’t make this dish for many years, since I am a vegetarian and a cheese snob, but earlier this year I decided to try it. I substituted a couple of broken-up Morningstar veggie burgers for the ground beef, but I decided that substituting a different (better) cheese for the Velveeta would interfere with the spirit of the original. So I used Velveeta, the highly processed cheese of my childhood, feeling embarrassed the first time I bought it. They say “you can’t go home again,” but making my mother’s casserole made me feel as if I had, and I don’t think it would have been the same without the Velveeta cheese!

It’s a cold winter night in Massachusetts, and it’s the 39th anniversary of my mother’s death at the age of 48. It felt like a good night to make myself some comfort food, and to me, there’s nothing quite as comforting as this.

Zucchini Days

Zucchini, Summer Squash and CheeseOh, how well I remember the Great Zucchini Boom of the late 1970s! In those days it seemed that everyone was growing vegetables: big red tomatoes, summer squash, some cucumber and peppers, but mostly lots and lots of zucchini! It was like zucchini had just been invented and no one knew how prolific it was.

People were always trying to give away their surplus crops, but it was difficult to find anyone who didn’t have their own vegetable garden. So suddenly my then-husband and I became popular. We were the only non-gardeners in the neighborhood, in our families and among our co-workers. I couldn’t walk down the street with the stroller without coming back with a bag of zucchini stuffed underneath, and a few tomatoes on my toddler’s lap. We’d go out for the day and come home and find big bags of zucchini, tomatoes and summer squash sitting on our front steps. Sometimes there would be a note written on the bag, usually just something like “Enjoy!” with a name. Sometimes no note, just a big bag overstuffed with perfect produce.

Zucchini, Summer Squash and CheeseIt was a standard joke in the neighborhood that you’d better not leave your car unlocked or you’d find a bag of vegetables on your front seat. (It was a joke everywhere — try Googling zucchini “leave your car unlocked”!) But the non-gardening Thomsens were actually happy to receive everyone else’s surplus — in the car, the stroller, the front steps, whatever.

I’m not much of a cook, however. Fortunately, right at the start of the boom, our friends Tony and Edie were visiting from New Jersey when a neighbor dropped of a big bag of zucchini, summer squash and tomatoes. I told Edie that I loved getting all these vegetables but didn’t really know what to do with them. Edie said I should just slice them, layer them in a baking dish, maybe with a little cheese, and bake them.

I started asking her a lot of questions:

Me: “Do I grease the cooking dish?”
Edie: “Use some olive oil.”
Me: “How much?”
Edie: “As much as you want.”
Me: “How thin should I slice the zucchini?”
Edie: “However you like it.”
Me: “What kind of cheese?”
Edie: “Whatever you like.”

Edie is a calm and confident cook; I am not. But I finally got the idea that I was over-complicating things, and decided to just slice, layer, bake and hope for the best. I have now been happily making variations of this for over thirty years, and it’s always great. Thanks, Edie!

Zucchini, Summer Squash and Cheese

Clara’s Final Episode

I’ve been following the Great Depression Cooking series on YouTube for years, not so much for the recipes as for the joy of watching the gracious great-grandmother Clara Cannucciari share her knowledge, wisdom and stories along with simple, inexpensive Italian-American family food from the 1930s. The series began in 2007 with an episode on Pasta and Peas when Clara was 91 years old. The show was lovingly produced and directed by Clara’s grandson, Christopher Cannucciari, and eventually led to a DVD and book.

The final episode of the series was just released. It opens with Clara looking straight at the audience and saying, Thank you, everybody, this is my last show. I’m pretty damn old!” Later she speaks a little more about aging: “Nothing great about getting old, it’s terrible, you can’t do what you want, it’s just…but…I always say God put me here for a reason. I don’t know what it is, but he probably does.”

She truly saved the best for last, and in this episode she shares her mother’s recipe for old-fashioned tomato sauce, made from fresh tomatoes, nothing canned. She ends with the words “This is the perfect ending to a perfect show. I love you all, goodbye,” but then we see her welcoming a young child, presumably a great grandchild, and feeding pasta and sauce to a new generation.

This show is shining example of family history. Christopher Cannucciari is capturing and sharing his grandmother’s cooking and her spirit in a way that will help her live on in the lives of her extended family (which thanks to YouTube includes thousands of us. It’s also a lesson in oral history. Many elderly people are not particularly comfortable sitting down and talking about their own lives if you just try to interview them, and they may be much more comfortable doing what Clara’s is doing here, which is sharing a skill in the spirit of helpfulness. Her memories are shared in the context of talking about her family and how her parents managed to keep the family fed during the Depression.

Thanks for the memories, Clara!