The Middle Distance 11.26.10: “But who will make the broccoli-pea casserole?”

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photo by Sean Cayton

This Thanksgiving, my kids and I are spread apart across the country. This morning I woke up wondering: Who will make the broccoli-pea casserole?

It is at once a standing joke and an honored tradition in our family that at Thanksgiving, and only at Thanksgiving, we make this casserole, a recipe given to my mother from a co-worker appropriately named Minnie, at least 40 years ago.

My stained copy of the recipe, typed onto a standard index card and given to me shortly after I married, still resides in a wooden box now hidden away in a storage warehouse.

But I know the recipe by heart, as does each of my children:

Two packages of frozen broccoli, cooked and drained. One can of peas (my mother prefers the petite peas with the silver label). A nasty looking goop comprised of cream of mushroom soup, mayonnaise, eggs, onion, grated cheddar cheese and lots of black pepper. Make layers: broccoli, goop, peas, more goop. Then crush a sleeve of saltines and spread them over the top. Drizzle with melted butter and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until nice and browned.

Who were we kidding the year we substituted nonfat yogurt for mayonnaise, or when we used lowfat, lower sodium cream of mushroom soup to ease the calorie count? One year, my sons and their dad served broccoli-pea casserole to an ardently fit vegetarian, a guest at their table who declared it the most delicious thing she’d ever tasted.

They’d melted an entire stick of butter for special effect.

This year I am preparing a complicated turkey recipe that involves duck fat, sauerkraut, apples, wine, juniper berries, and lots of bacon. I am free to indulge and explore only because I’m not serving my children this year. Otherwise, it would be a traditional roasted turkey and broccoli-pea casserole all the way.

And this year, as the kids and I feast at distant tables in New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Colorado, no matter what the host serves or what culinary adventures we might embark upon ourselves, I know that someone will make the broccoli-pea casserole.

How many times have I sat down at the Thanksgiving table and someone pipes up: “Who made the broccoli-pea casserole? It’s so good this year!” Nods of agreement spread around the table, amid smiles that confirm it’s not who makes it but it’s the fundamental homeliness of this dish, and the fact that we have never eaten it on any other day except the fourth Thursday in November, that makes it so memorable.

As I rinse the sauerkraut and julienne the apples, I think of my mother who will only be able to nibble around her plate this year. I think of those who won’t be at the table with any of us: my nephew, my son, my sister, and my children’s dad.

After their brother died, it took the kids and me three years to screw up the courage to watch old home movies of ourselves. But one night this August, we watched for hours, endless shots of fat babies drooling and cooing, a gorgeous pre-teen daughter alternately annoyed and enamored of the ever present camera, an exhausted mother with dark rings around her eyes, a handsome young father, and an adorable toddler with shiny black hair always building, always pushing a truck, always in deep concentration.

We were stunned and silenced by a sequence of video shot at Thanksgiving the year my son was four years old. Amid the clamor of plates and forks, he announces to all around the table that he has written a book about Thanksgiving and wants to read it to us.

His round belly protrudes from a stretched long-sleeved T-shirt as he sets his shoulders and begins his recitation. He stares seriously at a piece of brown construction paper. His tale is of ships and Pilgrims and Indians and corn and, finally, a turkey.

His audience whoops and applauds and the camera pans the table — mounds of mashed potatoes, a perfectly browned turkey, and a dish we all recognize as broccoli-pea casserole.

This Thanksgiving, spread around the country, we will peer beneath the veil of celebration into the face of our loss and grief. And beneath that layer, the food of the soul that sustains us, gratitude for all that we have known and all that is yet to come.

Broccoli-Pea Casserole

2 pkgs. 10 oz. chopped frozen broccoli or broccoli florets
1 can (17 oz.) Le Seuer green peas
1 can Cream of Mushroom soup
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 medium onion, chopped
2 eggs beaten
Salt (optional) and pepper to taste
Crushed saltine crackers and a little melted butter

Cook broccoli and drain. Arrange in a 2 quart casserole. Mix soup, mayonnaise, seasonings (lots of black pepper! Doesn’t really need salt), onion, cheese, and eggs. Pour 1/2 goop over broccoli, add drained peas, then pour remaining 1/2 goop over top. Sprinkle with crumbled crackers. Pour melted butter over crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until nicely browned.

Serve only at Thanksgiving.

You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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7 Responses to The Middle Distance, 11.25.10: "But who will make the broccoli-pea casserole?"

  1. Libby says:

    Thank you for sharing, Kathryn, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Dixie Cole says:

    Beautiful, once again…

  3. Ellen Troyer says:

    Hi Kathryn, I love your stories from the heart. We replaced my mother’s traditional green bean / mushroom soup casserole with fancier food network side dishes at yesterday’s feast. The new dishes were scrumptions but the green bean casserole with the canned dried onions on top was truly missed. It will make its comeback on our Thanksgiving table 2011.

  4. laura says:

    You bravely go to the grief and find your way out—I love you so much.

  5. Hiker gal says:

    Your stories are stunning in their simplicity and they way they go right to the heart of things.
    Have you written any books? I want to read more!

  6. Paula says:

    Mom uses asparagus and peas. It has become a tradition in Ted’s Benell family.

  7. Isabel says:

    I love everything you write and Paula lets me know about your articles. They warm my heart, but bring tears to my eyes. How I wish I had truly known you. My love to you and to all your family.

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