This summer I ventured out of my usual antique-store shopping and hit two large “antique flea markets,” in Allegan, Michigan, and Elkhorn, Wisconsin. These had hundreds of dealers and each was an all-day-a-thon. Of course I looked for the usual: dishware, cookware and old cookbooks.
And of course I found them all, especially old cookbooks. These have great stories, fascinating recipes (though not always useful or complete), and serve as a good springboard for recipe development. I notice a distinct trend from decade to decade. Cookbooks in the 1910s and 1920s sometimes had a section about how to work with your maids or how to endure the work of hosting a dinner party if you don’t have them.
By the 1930s that’s gone, and indeed, there were fewer cookbooks published due to the Great Depression. The 1940s era started with recipes about conserving food (for the war effort, of course) and featured substitutes for sugar and other ingredients, since rationing was rampant. By this time, the thought of kitchen maids for most people was long gone. Cookbooks were also being purchased much more by the general public rather than the elite.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Populuxe era was in full swing, with baby boomer kids out on swing sets, husbands at work, and dutiful wives in the house, cleaning, ironing, doing laundry and, of course, cooking. The text often refers to the “perfect” housewife who “wants” the house to sparkle, the husband and children to be happy, and to be shining like a star when everyone rolls in for a hot, homemade dinner every single night. And of course she had to sparkle from time to time hosting friends at a weekend dinner party – without maids.
(We all know that wasn’t the perfect picture for some women, who by the 1970s were burning their bras, seeing “Maude” on TV, and hearing, “I Am Woman.” Reality finally hit.)
The 1950s and '60s were an especially convenient time of canned, frozen and other packaged foods that made life easier for that harried housewife. In more than one cookbook, I’ve seen a recipe for “Can-Opener Casserole” (or a similar title) that showed wives how easy it could be – just open a bunch of cans, mix and bake.
We might scoff at this today, but how often do we go to the drive-through for dinner because we’re tired, had long day at work, and the children will like it? There are days that you do need a shortcut, and while it’s not how you would normally eat, it’s OK once in a great while. So the idea of a can-opener casserole is not so lazy after all.
This is a variation on those can-opener casserole recipes. I wanted to make it as simple as possible but more flavorful than some of the ones I tried. Also, some “can-opener” convenience recipes start with cans but have you adding various spices and fresh ingredients.
If you have some leftover fried chicken, roast or other meat that can be reheated in the oven, pop that pan in the oven alongside this casserole during the last 15 minutes of cooking, and you’ll have what seems like a whole new meal. Another benefit of this recipe is that other than the amount of the last two ingredients, you don’t have to have the exact size of can – just close. You can also vary what vegetables you include. Note, however, that you need some starchy vegetables (beans, carrots, corn, peas, white potatoes, winter squash). A couple of cans of vegetables that are 50 percent or more of tomato just won’t work.
1 can (15 ounces or so) of a starchy vegetable, such as corn or green beans, drained
1 can (15 ounces or so) of a vegetable mix, such as Tomatoes/Okra/Corn (Margaret Holmes brand
from Aldi) or Del Monte or Libby brand Mixed Vegetables, drained
1 can (10 to 11 ounces or so) condensed cream of mushroom soup (alternatves: condensed cream
of celery soup, condensed cream of chicken soup)
1 bag (10 ounces or so) frozen chopped onions (or chop one fresh onion)
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (packaged, like Kraft brand, not fresh)
Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter or oil an 8-by-8 or 7-by-11-inch casserole dish (or any baking dish that holds 2 to 2 1/2 quarts). Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and stir until thoroughly mixed. Pour into greased baking dish. Bake uncovered for 1 hour. Remove from oven and let sit 5 minutes before serving.
There is no need to add salt because of the amount in the canned soup and Parmesan cheese. You can add pepper to taste if desired, though.
And if you're like me and have a penchant for cookware from antique shows and stores, clear out a hallway closet for all the goods.