Where: Somewhere in Cleveland
Nancy: Hey Julie, this is Nancy. Are you and Frank coming over for dinner tomorrow night?
Julie: Yes. We found a babysitter! Betsy Thompson, though she does let them watch a bit too much TV.
Nancy: Yeah, I can see why—they just bought one of those new color TVs. Speaking of little Jimmy, how does he like his new teacher?
Julie: I think he does, especially after she brought some homemade cookies for the class. I tell you one thing though, he doesn’t like the school food. Little Jimmy still wants a homemade lunch every day. This kid is going to turn into a bologna sandwich and a Twinkie!
Nancy: No kidding! Little Bobby takes a PBJ and a Dr. Pepper in his Lawman lunchbox to school every day. Hey, speaking of something sweet, are you going to make that new Jello salad recipe?
Julie: Probably so. I know John loves Jello.
Nancy: Does he ever! But if I could only figure out what to make for dinner. John insists on grilling some pork chops, but I don’t know…
Julie: How ‘bout something out of that fancy new cookbook John gave you for your birthday? French, right? What’s her name, Julia Child?
Nancy: Yeah, but it looks a little complicated…
Julie: What about your tuna noodle casserole? Everyone loves it, especially little Jimmy.
Nancy: Great idea! And I’ve got everything I need for it here in the cupboard… I think. Let me check.… Shoot, I don’t have a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. It’s OK. I’ll have Bobby ride his bike to the Fishers and grab a can.
Julie: Sounds good. We’ll take care of the cocktails. I think Frank owes John a bottle of Canadian Club. Gotta go, Jimmy is playing with Frank’s cigarette lighter again!
Jimmy – stop that right now!
* * *
This dialogue is not an exercise in early 21st Century hipster irony. People really talked like this in 1961. More importantly, people ate like this in 1961. They liked tuna noodle casserole, Jello, and Canadian Club.
And yet, tuna noodle casserole— let’s call it “TNC” for short—made a comeback in my house recently. But more out of necessity than anything else.
Anyone who has visited my kitchen, quickly notices two things. First, I have a lot of pots, pans, and appliances devoted to cooking. Second, if one were to open the cabinets, one would discover a surfeit of bottles, jars, boxes, and cans containing everything from verjus, sardines, almond oil (not kidding), various types of olives, lentils, sushi rice (even though I’ve never made sushi), and jars of spices (typically 2-3 jars of each kind because I don’t check before hitting the store). It all looks like the kitchen Prospero would have had.
So one of my informal new year’s resolutions was to slowly cook through this backlog of epicurean ephemera. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. After all, what does one do with a bag of chia seeds and a very large jar of organic peanut butter from Costco?!
And then, behind the half-empty box of elbow macaroni and saltines, I discovered several cans of tuna fish.
Are you with me?
Though I grew up on TNC, it is certainly not something in my culinary wheelhouse. As a result, I consulted The Joy of Cooking, the best source for these kinds of dishes. Sure enough, there on page 96, I found a recipe for TNC. I scanned the list of ingredients. I had everything but, like Nancy, I lacked one lousy can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Does anyone buy that stuff anymore?
After a quick trip to the Piggly Wiggly, I was in business. And what a business it was: easy and cheap. And it helped clear out my cabinets.
Like I said, I grew up on this stuff. My kids, however, were newbies. They had never had TNC I was curious how they would react. They each took a bite…. Wait… Score! I’m making this again!
Mid-century modern is certainly having a moment. Mad Men was a huge hit. Skinny ties are back, and Eames chairs are all the rage. But the food? Not so much.
As for “little Jimmy?” He retired from the hedge fund he ran in New York. He lives in Napa. He’s vegan and hates tuna noodle casserole.
Hey Jimmy: my kids love it.