Friday, November 16, 2007

Baptist Casserole

(Blogger's Note: I've pulled this one from the archives; seemed appropriate enough in this highest of cooking seasons. Enjoy.)

Casseroles are admittedly one of the longest running jokes in the Baptist faith, but to date, no one has tackled the mother of all chicken casseroles and its place in generations of Baptist cookbooks.

In some circles – like the JOY class, I would guess – this dish has an exotic-sounding name. Like Poppyseed Chicken. Or Chicken Can-Can. I’ve heard it called much worse.

I’ll describe the ingredients and preparation here, taken from a handwritten note given to me years ago, scribbled in crayon on the back of an adult literacy flyer (lack of punctuation is not my fault – this is how Baptists write when passing notes during Sunday school):

Bake chicken

Cut into small pieces

Put in buttered casserole dish

1) Mix two cans of cream of chicken soup and sour cream 16 oz. pour over chicken

2) Mix 1 ½ package of Ritz crackers (crushed) and 1 tablespoon of poppy seed pour over cream of chicken soup mixture

3) Pour stick of melted butter over those mixtures

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes

You’re all nodding your heads. We’ve all had it, I would guess that most of us have prepared it, and, if I could be so bold, we would probably all admit (maybe not publicly) that we really, really like it.

What this dish lacks in shredded cheddar cheese, it more than makes up for in a shameful amount of sour cream and cream of chicken soup. Mmm-mmm good!

I once went to a covered-dish dinner advertised as an adult Sunday school social, and one of the husbands showed up without his wife. I was standing at an obscenely long folding table, pinching pieces of sliced turkey off a platter with one hand while eating something like a brownie with the other and asked why he was alone.

“Oh, my wife’s at home with a fever of 104,” he told me, rearranging casserole dishes to make room for his.

“Oh, my,” I said. “Why in the world aren’t you at home with her?”

He looked at me like I had two heads. “I had to bring the chicken casserole.”

Maybe my next question was too obvious. “So … who made the chicken casserole?”

“She did.” He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

For the rest of the evening, I felt all warm inside, like I had the flu. I envisioned my friend, red-faced and slumped over a Corningware dish, halfheartedly assembling a pyramid of three or four empty Campbell’s soup cans and coughing into her shoulder. Is this something Jesus would do? I don’t really know for sure, but I have an idea that He probably wouldn’t.

A few years ago, my friend Caprice kept our dog while we were out of town because a negligent boarder forgot to put our name on the book, but that’s a story for another day. So when we returned home, I did what any good Baptist would do: I picked up my dog and dropped off a chicken casserole as a thank-you. Caprice just grunted, went inside and closed the door. (It’s here that I should probably explain that Caprice is not a Baptist.)

Some weeks later, she had to stay at the hospital one night with her young daughter. When I called to ask what I could do for her, she said, “Nothing. And don’t bring me any of that Baptist Casserole.” And a name was born.

Now, an interesting turn of events took place soon thereafter. During one of our many daily phone conversations, I asked Caprice about the noise in the background. “I’m making supper,” she answered, but in a very wistful, distant way.

I tried to pin her down about what she was making, but she undoubtedly couldn’t hear me because of all the tin cans clinking together.

“Oh, my. You’re making … Baptist Casserole.”

“I am NOT making Baptist Casserole. THIS casserole will have rice and vegetables in it.”

“So it’s Baptist Casserole with a twist, like Non-Denominational Casserole?” She hung up on me.

I was offended by her cavalier attitude as much as she was ashamed to be preparing it in the first place. Who did she think she was? Baptist Casserole isn’t something that needs revision – nutritional or otherwise. This is the mainstay of our socials, our bereavement meals, our you-just-had-a-baby-so-here’s-dinner contribution.

What generations of Baptist women had perfected and passed along in 9 ½ x 11 dishes, on recipe cards, and, yes, on adult literacy flyers was, in an instant, defamed by Veg-All and Minute Rice.

A time-tested casserole should not have a conversion experience. For Caprice, however, there’s still hope.