Everybody remembers a food from childhood that made them shudder, if not gag outright when Mom brought it to the table.
For me, it’s tuna casserole.
My three older brothers all loved the dish, but me — I found the creamy, fishy-smelling mixture of egg noodles tossed with condensed soup, frozen peas and canned tuna fish a complete aberration. A witches’ brew, if there ever were one.
The mere sight of my mother’s terra cotta casserole dish filled me with dread, because she only made two things in the giant pot: tuna casserole and beef stew, which contained something hated almost as much as those fishy noodles — cooked carrots. But I digress.
While I’ll gladly eat canned tuna in cold salads, I draw the line at cooked “chicken of the sea” dishes. There’s something about warm tuna fish that just feels wrong on the tongue. Plus it stinks. What’s appetizing about seafood is the fresh, clean smell of the sea. But canned tuna? It reminds me of cat food.
You can throw “noodle” in the title like many do to try to make the dish sound more appealing, but there’s no fooling us tuna-casserole haters. Even when the curly, cooked pasta gets nice and crispy on top, a bite is still going to include fishy-tasting fish. And that’s just … wrong.
I take great comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my aversion.
Last week, when a sample from a local catering kitchen ended up in the food room with a heart-shaped chocolate cake, I sent a newsroom-wide email to see who wanted some. Guess which freebie disappeared first.
Only two co-workers took the tuna bait. One because she hadn’t remembered to pack lunch and thought it would be a “nostalgic trip back to elementary school,” and the other because of tradition.
“Obviously you didn’t grow up in a conservative Catholic family,” said PG librarian Steve Karlinchak, who ate tons of the stuff while in college at Duquesne University and was quite disappointed to have shown up at my desk a few minutes too late. (He’s right; I’m Lutheran.)
When pressed, Steve admitted his mother never made or ate it. “I guess it’s one of those things you have to learn to eat,” he said.
My point exactly. Any dish you have to “learn” to stomach probably isn’t worth putting in your belly.
I get why so many mothers, including my own, worshipped at the altar of canned tuna in the 1960s and ’70s. Fresh fish wasn’t so widely available when I was growing up, and it certainly wasn’t economical for large families. I have six brothers and sisters, and feeding all those hungry kids three times a day required budgeting.
“It was an economical thing to make, and went a long way,” my mom tells me, when I call to ask her why she served it so often.
Not to mention easy for a working mother of seven whose husband traveled for business. “Back then I cooked as easy as possible,” she says. “I needed dishes I could make ahead.”
Her’s was a pretty simple preparation — a couple cans of tuna mixed with Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, wide egg noodles and peas. Some milk to make it extra creamy but no canned chicken broth, because that didn’t exist at our local A&P.
With Lent now underway, everyone’s talking fish. So I decided that perhaps I should give tuna noodle casserole — on the menu at several church fish fries — another chance. Now that I’m a grownup, maybe, just maybe, I might find I actually like the dish. Especially if I found a really great recipe. I mean, I no longer hate cooked carrots.
“Not Your Mom’s Tuna Casserole” from the new “Mr. and Mrs. Sunday’s Dinner” cookbook by Lorraine Wallace seemed just the ticket. Picture perfect, the panko-cheddar crust sounded like a delicious update, as did the veggies cooked in a homemade cream sauce. My husband, who loves the dish, couldn’t wait for me to become a convert.
Only I didn’t. While my parents and son’s girlfriend thought the casserole was wonderful, it failed to work its magic on me. One whiff, and I was transported back to childhood. I didn’t need more than a spoonful to confirm the obvious.
In the past 28 years of mothering, I’ve always told my kids there was one dish I’d never, ever make, no matter how poor or pressed for time or hungry we might be: tuna casserole. Last week’s experiment confirmed that.
But I might try the recipe with shredded rotisserie chicken.
Not Your Mom’s Tuna Casserole
Nonstick cooking spray
12-ounce bag egg noodles
16-ounce can oil-packed tuna (I used tuna packed in water)
10-ounce package frozen peas, thawed and drained
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 celery stalk, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, quartered
1½ tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1½ cups chicken broth, homemade or canned
2 cups whole milk
1½ cups panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position oven rack in the middle position.
Coat a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. (I used 2 smaller casserole dishes.)
Cook the noodles in salted water until al dente according to package directions. Drain and rinse the noodles in cold water to stop them from cooking. Once cooled, pour the noodles into a large bowl and add tuna, peas and 2 cups of the cheese. Toss to combine.
In large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add onion and celery and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme and continue to cook until onion and celery are translucent, about 2 more minutes. Add mushrooms, reduce heat to medium and cook vegetables until tender and the mushrooms’ juices have evaporated, about 5 minutes longer. Add Worcestershire sauce and stir it in, then sprinkle the flour over the entire skillet. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until flour is incorporated into vegetables, with no lumps. Add broth and stir to scrape up any brown bits. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring constantly to combine. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the mixture has thickened and is reduced by 1/2 cup, about 8 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour the vegetable sauce over the tuna-noodle mixture in the bowl and mix to combine. Immediately pour into the prepared casserole dish(es).
In bowl, toss panko with remaining cheese. Stir in olive oil. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the casserole. Bake, uncovered, until the casserole is bubbly and top is golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve piping hot.
— “Mr. and Mrs. Sunday’s Dinner: More than 100 Delicious, Homemade Recipes to Bring Your Family Together” by Lorraine Wallace (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Jan. 2015, $24.99)