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The Dinner Pot : You Can't Tuna Dish

January 20, 1994|RUSS PARSONS

No single dish has done so much to degrade the image of the casserole as the seemingly ubiquitous combination of canned tuna, canned mushroom soup and smashed potato chips. It's gotten so that the mere phrase "tuna fish casserole" has become a kind of punch line.

It's a long and winding road the dish has taken from an innocent conception, and as such it serves as a kind of reverse role model for the casserole story.

The dish we now joke about can be traced back to an entirely honorable way of using up leftover salt or fresh cod. Usually consisting of flaked fish bound with bechamel and baked with a bread crumb topping, it's called cod a la bechamel in "Mrs. Beeton's Everyday Cookery and Housekeeping Book," published in 1865. A similar dish is called deviled fish in the 1898 "Mrs. Rorer's New Cookbook." Occasionally, quartered or sliced mushrooms were added to the sauce.

Tuna, which was first canned commercially in 1903, shows up in Ida Bailey Allen's 1932 "Modern Cookbook" bound with bechamel and called escalloped tuna fish. Canned cream of mushroom soup was introduced by Campbell's in 1934, and the first tuna casserole as we know it shows up in "Joy of Cooking" author Irma Rombauer's 1939 book "Streamlined Cooking": tuna, mushroom soup and noodles.

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By 1947, the dish was so ubiquitous that in the kitchen memoir "Pot Shots From a Grosse Ile Kitchen," Lucy and Sidney Corbett casually mention that when one dinner was unexpectedly ruined, they fell back on the desperate combination of tuna, mushroom soup and potato chips.

The 1949 "Good Housekeeping Cookbook" probably marks the beginning of the Baroque era of the tuna casserole. Here we find club tuna loaf; scalloped tuna and potato casserole; tuna casserole (alternating layers of white sauce and potato chips); creamed tuna supreme (made with mushroom soup); tuna noodle bake (mushroom soup) and quick curried tuna (mushroom soup plus curry powder).

And by 1967, the Surrealists were in full flower, with William I. Kaufman--the Salvador Dali of tuna casseroles--publishing his "Art of Casserole Cookery," including: all-in-one tuna chip casserole (tuna, mushroom soup, mushrooms and potato chips); tuna Swiss cheese casserole (with cream of celery soup); tuna Romanoff (cottage cheese and sour cream); Cinnamon Bay casserole (tuna, celery soup, peas and Cheddar cheese); eggplant tuna Parmigiana (tuna, eggplant, tomato sauce and mozzarella), and perhaps his greatest work, fruited tuna casserole--an unearthly combination of tuna, cream of mushroom soup, canned cherries, canned peaches and grapes with slivered almonds on top.

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