Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Love, in Seven Layers

Growing up in suburbia in the 1960's and 70's meant I spent a lot of time in other people's houses. I can still go up the street in my old neighborhood and remember each family's name. I knew the moms, the dads, the siblings, the toys, and of course the dogs. We played in each other's yards, rooms, backyards and after a long day of playing, often my friends would invite me to stay for dinner. This is where I finally learned some table manners, the hard way, and I found out not everyone ate the same three meals over and over and over.

My mom, who did not relish cooking, tried out recipes in her early motherhood years. Easy recipes I'm sure. Recipes not involving organ meats, or fish bones, or any bones that could be choked on, or spices, or things to sink our teeth into lest we choke, or any sort of meat still resembling in any way the animal it came from. Casseroles were big then, and my Mom latched onto the concept of the casserole with both apron strings.

casserole (Frenchdiminutive of casse, from Provençal cassa "pan"[1]) is a large, deep dish used both in the oven and as a serving vessel. The word is also used for the food cooked and served in such a vessel, with the cookware itself called a casserole dish or casserole pan.
Casseroles in the United States or continental Europe usually consist of pieces of meat (such as chicken) or fish (such as tuna), various chopped vegetables, a starchy binder such as flourricepotato or pasta, and, often, a crunchy or cheesy topping.[2] Liquids are released from the meat and vegetables during cooking, and further liquid in the form of stockwinebeer (for example lapin à la Gueuze), gincider, or vegetable juice may be added when the dish is assembled. Casseroles are usually cooked slowly in the oven, often uncovered.  Wikipedia

We were casserole people. Casseroles were made for cooks like my mom. Once all the ingredients get plopped in, they practically serve themselves. They don't make too much of a mess in the oven, no pots bubbling over, no pans to scrub out - except for that one 13 x 9" Pyrex casserole dish we had. Why only one? For seven people? Because it was ready the next day for another casserole. 

There were three casseroles in our family. We ate them over and over. A lot. Weekly. Semi-weekly. 

  • Tuna Casserole
  • Meatloaf
  • 7 Layer Casserole

I'm not sure if meatloaf is even considered a casserole, but let's lump it in, shall we? I know there were other things we ate, like hamburgers and hot dogs in summer, fish sticks, pot pies, and my Dad's charred-on-the-outside, pink-on-the-inside chicken. Later on down the line, my Mom started making something called Taco Pie, without all the spices of course. And we always had a great turkey dinner on the holidays. We lived all year for those turkey dinners. It was, first of all, not a casserole, and all those potential bones to choke on were positively fascinating to our little imaginations. 

But it was the 7 Layer Casserole that became famous in our household. Through the years my Mom started leaving out a layer here and there, but we still called it 7 Layer. The recipe got lost. It didn't matter, it was more of a process than a recipe. Seven Layer was like an archaeological dig through 1950's cooking. Fresh ingredients, chopped and prepared in a way that rendered them utterly unpalatable by modern standards. And yet we lived to torment my Mom with tales about what the other kids on the block were eating. Pasta with bubbling sauces smelling of herbs and garlic, spicy foods, meat with bones, fish with bones, not in sticks. 

With my Mom's recent illness bringing up lots of emotions, us kids have been having some fun with our mutual memories. Apparently I missed the whole Wheat Germ Cookie Era, which had my sister hiding cookies in a garage vent - they were that bad. And my brother is sure our Dad got so sick of 7 Layer, that's when we starting getting take-out Chinese food every now and then. Whenever we talk of our childhood, 7 Layer always comes up. It's legendary. 

So I Googled it. It's a real thing. Apparently other families ate it too. Not three times a week, but still, it was so reassuring to see that Hunt's Tomato Sauce advertisement for our 7 Layer Casserole. With a woman's very lady-like hand, ever so gently putting the infamous casserole together in such a way as to not make a mess. It is so my Mom.

This month, in a shout out to my Mom, I'll be making as many 7 Layer Casserole variations as I can think of. We will eat them until we cry "No more!" All vegan of course, no ground beef or bacon in our versions.

I did one with chopped mushrooms instead of the meat, and with brown rice. I did another with curry spices and garbanzos. Soon to come will be Italian, Tex-Mex, some kind of Asian flavored one, and maybe a Hawaiian with pineapple. They don't have to taste good, that's never been the point. They just have to be in seven layers, or six, or so, and be made with love. That's how my Mom made them.

It was an actual thing!

Really, like in a magazine.

There were matchbooks!
Seven Layer Casserole Matchbooks.

There were other Hunt's recipes.
Messy recipes cooked by ample women in aprons with pudgy fingers and flappy arms.
My Mom had pretty hands and non-flappy arms, for which I am grateful.

But still, there were so many other recipes.

Eighteen minutes. That's quick!

Goulash! How exotic!

Look at those happy people.

Um, those fish do not look happy.

It has no bones, I'll give it that.

Ugh. Run food, run!

This fish is barfing parsley.
That is never good.

Seven Layer is looking really good in comparison.

Tuna Casserole has it all over this.

Say no to organ meats with lemon.

Those frankfurters look mortified. 

What did this little fella ever do to deserve this?

Yum, finally some dessert!
Wait, no, it's not a cake.
It's a sandwich loaf.
A Seven Layer Sandwich Loaf.