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.
The 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.