Cooking Stories

Let’s Talk Tuna

What comes to mind when you hear the word “tuna?” Personally, I think it probably depends on your age. If you are in your 20’s, you may think of sushi right away, perhaps a nice piece of Nigiri. If you are in your 30’s and 40’s, chances are you think of tuna salad, either as part of a sandwich or on a bed of lettuce. Most likely, if you are in your 40’s and above, you think of tuna noodle casserole. Oh yes, I said those dirty, dirty words, the sorry bastard of all baked multi ingredient dishes: TUNA CASSEROLE!

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My grandmother once said there were only two ways to eat tuna: Tuna salad for lunch or Bridge, and tuna noodle casserole for dinner. And, of course, both types were made from canned tuna. I can hear my grandfather interrupting my thoughts, saying: “No, no, no, tuna steak, you grill up a beautiful piece of tuna steak.” Well, he was a fancy pants — a sports fisherman and world traveler. He actually spent a lot of time in Japan for business, so he preferred a lightly seared tuna steak. At the time, this treatment of tuna was a rarity in America. Tuna, like my grandmother said, belonged in a salad or in a casserole, and canned was just fine. She played a lifetime of bridge; she should know.

The sorry bastard tuna noodle casserole gained its notoriety in the 1950’s, thanks to our BFF, Betty Crocker.

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Casseroles in general became a very popular household dish in the 1950’s for a number of reasons. Mainly, the ingredients were cheap and easy to find at the store: a can of tuna, a can of vegetables, a can of soup, and a package of egg noodles. In a quick thirty five minutes, dinner for the entire family was ready. Tuna casserole could also be frozen or refrigerated, then reheated to be eaten as a leftover the next day. Tuna casserole was a very popular dish to take to pot lucks.

While every tuna casserole is different, historically, it is made with egg noodles, chopped onion, shredded cheddar cheese, frozen green peas, canned, drained tuna, condensed cream of mushroom soup, sliced mushrooms, and crushed potato chips. The cooked noodles, onion, cheese, peas, tuna, soup, and mushrooms are mixed in a baking dish with the potato chips and extra cheese sprinkled on top, and then cooked.

While researching the history of tuna noodle casserole, I came across a fantastic article from the LA Times titled “Poor Tuna Casserole Has a Rich History.” In part, it says: “No single dish has done so much to degrade the image of the casserole as the seemingly ubiquitous combination of canned tuna, canned mushroom soup, and smashed potato chips. It’s gotten so that the mere phrase ‘tuna casserole’ has become a kind of punch line.”

Casserole-type dishes show up in cookbooks from the late 1800’s, but it wasn’t until 1949 that marked the beginning of the “Baroque era,” as the Times refers to it, thanks to Good Housekeeping and that bitch, Betty Crocker.

The 1950’s also marked the beginning of ethnic foods entering mainstream America. GI’s returning from tours in Europe and the Pacific had developed new tastes, and food companies were quick to supply the ingredients. “Americanized” versions of sukiyaki, egg foo young, chow mein, enchiladas, pizza, lasagna, and barbecued meats with Polynesian sauces regularly appeared in 1950’s cookbooks.  Believe it or not, the popular casseroles of the 1950’s were considered exotic!

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It had been a long time since I made a casserole. I had to dust off my vintage Corelle ware and really ponder the ingredients in basic tuna casserole and tuna salad. How could I update these dishes and still keep them quick and easy?

In my house, we try really hard to keep to a low sodium and sugar-free diet. We also try to stay away from processed foods whenever we are able.

Originally, I crafted a recipe to turn the tuna casserole into a super chic modern dish, and then came back to this piece and decided to stay true to the recipe. I replaced frozen and canned with fresh ingredients, and instead of potato chips, I grilled pita bread and made bread crumbs. I used sodium-free mushroom soup.

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For the original Betty Crocker Recipe, see below

The flavors do work. It was delicious and took me back to memories of my mother’s attempts at tuna noodle casserole, one of her better trials indeed.

So, I am going to save this bastard from the fires and bring it back to the dining table. Be thoughtful about your ingredients and let’s give some love to good ol’ Tuna Noodle Casserole. Hooray!

xo – Sailor

Original Tuna Noodle Casserole from the 1950’s
1 can (10 1/2 ounces) Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup 
1/2 cup milk 
¼ cup pimento, chopped
1 cup frozen green peas 
1 small onion, chopped
1 can of sliced mushrooms with water

2 cans (about 5 ounces each ) tuna in water, drained 

4 ounces (about 2 cups) medium egg noodles, cooked and drained 

1/3 cup of crushed potato chips 

1 tablespoon butter, melted 

Heat oven to 425°F.
Combine all ingredients, using only 1/2 the cheese.
Pour into buttered 1-1/2 quart baking dish.
Sprinkle with remaining cheese and crushed potato chips.
Bake 20 minutes.
Enjoy!

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