FOOD HISTORY: Casserole

The word casserole originally referred to the pan in which the dish was cooked. Casserole is from a French word meaning "sauce-pan"; a large, deep dish used either to cook something in an oven or to serve the food cooked in it. The French word  "casserole"  had been derived from the old Provencal word, "cassa" and the Medieval Latin word, "cattia", both of these words meaning "ladle". This seemed to imply that these words were describing a common pot from which everyone shared. French cassoulet, Spanish paella, British pot pies and Italian lasagna, to name only a few, seemed to be derived from this idea. In fact, a recipe, written in Latin, for the precursor of a  famous casserole - macaroni and cheese - is found in the " Liber de Cucina". It was written by a  by a person familiar with the Neapolitan court of Charles II of Anjou (1254-1309). The recipe named,"de lasnis", called for pasta sheets cooked in water, layered with grated cheese (probably Parmesan) and mild spices, if desired.  Centuries later, after a stay in Italy (1787), Thomas Jefferson brought a pasta machine back to Monticello. His daughter, Mary Randolph, serving as the President's hostess since the death of her mother, prepared a similar dish made with  pasta and Parmesan cheese. Later the Parmesan was replaced by Cheddar. Mary's pasta and cheese dish was later served at the President Jefferson's White House starting in 1802 and a recipe for the dish was included in her 1824 cookbook, "The Virginia Housewife".  In the late 19th century, the New World embraced casseroles, inspired by these kinds of dishes brought by immigrants from many different cultures. They provided economical, communal  sustenance during the depressions of the 1890's and 1930's and the scarcity of food items during both World Wars. In the 1950's, smaller home kitchens, the availability of light weight ovenproof cookware and the greater availability of canned foods ( eg., Campbell Soup Company's Creamed soup line; celery, chicken, mushroom, broccoli, cheddar cheese, etc) made the casserole a simple, easy and cheap way to use leftover foods to serve the whole family. As a matter of fact, Campbell emphasized the great casserole potential of these soups and that contributed to the mass  mass appeal of these dishes to the public and to the explosion of casserole dishes the 1950's. There probably very few of you that are reading this, from whatever background you come, that cannot look back on a casserole from your youth that you really loved, or, alternatively, hated because you were forced to eat it. In any case, today casserole dishes, some using the finest, most expensive ingredients to those that still  are prepared by pouring the contents of an open can or two over some left-overs and then baked, are eaten and enjoyed all over the world.