A Food For No Season

REVIEW FEATURE

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Every holiday has its special dishes and foods.

We can't get past Easter without ham, colored eggs and hot cross buns. The Fourth of July has its watermelon and red, white, and blue Jell-O molds.

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Rim Country resident Kathy Farrell, a creative writing student at Gila Community College, wrote this week's cover story about a staple of many American dinner tables.

Even the South is sneaking in a New Year's tradition of black-eyed peas that supposedly brings good luck. Maybe they're getting even with us for losing the war. Black-eyed peas are a typical bean and the luck may be surviving a bowlful of them without any serious intestinal repercussions.

The granddaddy of food holidays, Thanksgiving, has deluged us with traditional foods like turkey, dressing, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and all the other goodies -- not to mention a myriad of variations on the traditional recipes.

Green bean casserole had even become associated with traditional holiday fare -- advertised on TV as a must have on Turkey Day and Christmas (although I've met few people who admit to eating it, and even less to having actually made it).

A few weeks ago, in the back of the March issue of "Country Living," I came across the mother lode of ‘classic' recipes: tuna noodle casserole. It was not an advertisement for any holiday, as there are none in March that I know of except St. Patrick's Day.

St. Pat has his own dinner of corned beef and cabbage, and tuna noodle casserole doesn't even bear a close resemblance. Perhaps they were targeting the non-Irish in an otherwise holiday-less month with a classic recipe we could call our own.

I grew up on tuna noodle casserole. I thought the dish rather tasty with the exception of the canned green peas that found their way into the finished product much of the time.

The recipe is a simple one. It is quickly made and only needs enough baking to heat it through.

I approached my husband, Dan, to see what he thought about tuna noodle casserole for lunch. Dan will eat anything except red beets; however, he hastily amended his not-to-be-eaten list to include hot tuna.

Over the years I have seen Dan eat tuna sandwiches by the hundreds and mix his version of tuna salad by the quart. He never once intimated that the tuna must not get any warmer than room temperature.

He claimed his mother tried to poison him on more than one occasion by feeding him hot tuna when he was a child. Fortunately, he saw through her subtle plot and refused to eat it.

My mother thinks packers haven't been putting tuna in those little cat food-sized cans for years. I have to agree with her.

After one taste, I never finished the last can of tuna I bought myself.

When I offered it to my cats, they curled their lips over it and left the room offended. Next I tried feeding it to the dogs; they tasted it delicately and backed off.

This surprised me because I've seen them eat worse things with a great deal of gusto. I stopped the Sheltie just as he dropped a shoulder to roll in it.

Our dogs will eat anything except canned tuna. I haven't bought it since.

Both Dan and my mother agreed they would give my casserole a go if I substituted something for the tuna. I made the casserole using chicken (to please them) and substituted mushrooms for the peas (to please me.)

I was in a momentary quandary when I found out neither my mother nor I had any of the required potato chips to top it with. All that was needed was a little crunch, so I mashed up some tortilla chips and used those.

It turned out quite delicious and there were no leftovers. Even Dan admitted that if he'd known tuna noodle casserole tasted so good, he would have eaten it years ago.

While we were eating our lunch my mother began to wax nostalgic. She admitted she never cared for tuna casserole because my grandmother served it so often. With seven kids to feed during a depression, it was quick, cheap, and filling.

When I pointed out we seemed to have it on a regular basis as I was growing up, she repeated it was quick, cheap and filling. But I had created a monster. Neither of us had eaten tuna noodle casserole in decades so it was a notable experience. The next time Mom talked to my Uncle Stanley the topic of conversation turned to tuna noodle casserole.

Uncle Stanley's bravery is above reproach. He was in the Marines on Guadalcanal in its worst times during World War II. I remember him stating many times that if you were truly starving you would eat anything to stay alive. Except tuna noodle casserole.

His version of the story of growing up eating too much tuna noodle casserole differed slightly from my mother's. If he can be believed, Grandma served tuna noodle casserole half a dozen times a week.

If there were any leftovers, she served it cold for breakfast. When her family balked at yet another meal of it, Grandma reminded them of all the poor, starving Chinese. Grandpa responded, "What's their address? I'll send it to them."

Uncle Stanley left home at 18 to join the Marines -- partly to get away from that everlasting tuna noodle casserole. He's eighty-five now and hasn't had tuna casserole in 67 years. The thought of it still makes him gag although he will tell you in great detail how to cook wormy rice and putrid meat and make it taste good.

Mom asked the couple across the street if they ever had tuna casserole. Like my mother and her brother, they, too, grew up with way too much of the stuff, but their daughter had no idea what they were talking about.

It got to be a joke. Every time Mom or I asked a friend what they knew about tuna noodle casserole, we would get a one-word answer: "Blech!!"

Like the green bean casserole that only appears between Thanksgiving and Christmas, how did tuna noodle casserole become such a ‘classic' recipe if nobody eats it?

Do advertisers skip a generation or two and hope the current one has never tasted it? Is it one of those things we remember fondly, sort of like outhouses?

We can look back and laugh and thank our lucky stars we don't have to deal with either one of them again. Even though I enjoyed the tuna noodle casserole, it will probably be another 20 or 30 years before I make it again.

Tuna Noodle Casserole

(Serves 4)

1 Can cream of mushroom soup

2 Cups hot cooked noodles

1 Cup frozen or canned peas

2 Cans (6 oz. each) tuna, drained

1/2 Cup milk

1/2 Cup shredded cheese

1/2 Cup crushed potato chips

Preheat oven to 400º F.

Mix soup, milk, peas, tuna and noodles in 1-1/2 quart casserole.

Bake for 20 minutes. Stir. Sprinkle cheese and potato chips on top. Bake until cheese is melted.

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