Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tuna casserole

Ah yes. Tuna casserole: It is, truly, the golden ticket down the immutable wormhole of growing up Catholic in the late 50s and 1960s. It was the inimitable Friday night special, served up at regular intervals along with French toast, fish sticks, tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs and pear-and-cottage-cheese salads.

Not all simultaneously, of course. That would be kind of gross.

My mom, aka The Mom Unit, double aka a non-Catholic, set my grade school, St. Rita's, on its collective ear when she deviated from a tried-and-true Friday night tuna casserole and introduced Chopstick Tuna to the Friday night meatless mash-up. It contained -- C-A-S-H-E-W-S and C-R-U-N-C-H-Y  C-H-O-W  M-E-I-N  N-O-O-D-L-E-S!!!! 

Oh the humanity! (At least they all started with "C" just like "Catholic." Isn't that worth some sort of indulgence?)

I'm pretty sure that's when the Good Sisters at St. Rita's decided my chances for salvation -- at least the Catholic version -- were slim to none. A pimped-up tuna casserole does have that effect.

Here it is. Better Homes and Garden New Cookbook.
Copyright 43 BC.
You know you love it.
My late mother-in-law, Young Bob Flynn, prepared a most serviceable (and nun-approved) tuna casserole made with egg noodles and cream of mushroom soup, topped of course, with crumbled potato chips -- or Ritz crackers if she was feeling saucy.

It was fine when she threw in a box of frozen corn, but in my narrow world of cooked vegetables, gastronomical lines were drawn in the sand if canned sweet peas were used.

Gaggggh. I hate peas in most every form except straight out of the pod, standing between the rows of When Pigs Fly Farm. And canned sweet peas are the worst. They look, smell and taste like baby poop. (Not that I have ever tasted baby poop. Let me make that perfectly clear. But I have seen and smell baby poop, and well, canned sweet peas . . . .) A number of the YBF's offspring, including the Wonderfully Patient Spouse, have inherited this odd proclivity for canned sweet poop peas.

They are ALL very nice people. . . aside from the eating sweet poop peas thing.
Which brings us to my first year as a newlywed.

With the WPS in school, we counted pennies. We lived on my $3,000-a-year salary as a hospital admitting clerk while paying $6,000 in out-of-state-tuition at the University of Colorado. We could not afford cashews, crunchy chow mein noodles, cream of mushroom soup -- or Ritz crackers, for that matter.

We COULD, however, afford a box of Kraft mac n' cheese, an onion, can of tuna and 1/4 cup of milk. Oh, and 4 tablespoons of margarine. We could afford that, too.

Do not use cupcakes in this recipe.
The cupcake is a symbolic, celebratory shout-out to the WPS' birthday.
Use slightly sauteed onions instead.
I suppose you could use a cupcake. No guarantees, but do let me know how it all turns out.
Re: pictured cupcake:
I think I ate most it even though the WPS and I "split" it. Most of his fingers are still intact.
But only because it was his birthday.

And so the Poor Man's Tuna Casserole was born. It sustained the WPS, and later the Numbers (our two sons), for many, many years. It sustained our pocketbook and sanity (it takes 20 minutes to throw together) as we navigated through the first years of marriage and parenthood and later, working, coaching and following the Numbers' many extracurricular exploits.

(However, it STILL takes me HOURS to pick out the canned sweet peas in my servings' worth of this family specialty. Oh, the things we do for family.)

And so THAT brings us to Monday, March 19.

The WPS' birthday dinner. He specifically requested the Poor Man's Tuna Casserole. Funny thing was that, days before, I had ALREADY decided, as a surprise, to fix this favorite tuna casserole for his natal day dinner. Well, with a few small modifications.

The modifications? you ask. How can you can possibly MESS with so-called tuna casserole perfection?

Just three things, three very, very small things: For example, I did (1) lightly saute the onions. (Yeah, back in the day, I tossed them in raw. Ouch. It's a miracle the Numbers ate it.)

(2) add a daring dash (or two or three) of garlic salt and fresh ground pepper; and

(3) discreetly set aside a serving of PMTC sans canned sweet peas for me, myself and I.

It was actually quite enjoyable.

Bon appetit!

Do try Chopstick Tuna when you're feeling bold and unfettered by the culinary constraints of your mom/dad/tribe's traditional tuna casserole.

It's a valve-slammer. (And PMTC isn't?)

But, channelling my best Paula Deen voice, that's what makes it guuddddddddd, honey.

Or someone will get hurt.


  1. I KNOW I LOVE IT!!!

    I am absolutely going to try Chopstick Tuna. It sounds so delish. But I'm going to have to make some substitutions. Because I don't eat tuna anymore. Now, this may sound grosser than canned sweet peas to you, but mock tuna made with chickpeas and seaweed is really good.

    Raw onions? That must have been how WPS earned his nickname!

    -Chandra at Daley's Dog Years

  2. I could totally work with chickpeas and sea weed. Sounds really tasty