In 1934, Campbell’s Soup Company introduced Cream of Mushroom and Chicken Noodle soups to the American consumer. Today, these two products still rank in the top ten shelf-stable food items sold in grocery stores.
It’s easy to understand why these soups have remained so popular. They are excellent emergency foods. When I was a kid, if the family had a flat tire or some other problem and got home late, Mom could open a couple cans of chicken noodle or cream of mushroom soup, slice some homemade bread and leftover roast and have a meal on the table before Dad finished his beer.
But the success of these soups goes well beyond their consumption as soups per se. Shortly after buying her first can of cream of mushroom soup, some inventive housewife probably said, “I wonder what would happen if I mixed a can of soup and a can of tuna with these leftover noodles?”
What happened, of course, was that a family quickly became addicted to tuna noodle casserole. At the urging of her husband and offspring, she took the casserole to a church potluck and shared the good news that it was easy to make, cheap and popular with the kids. The rest is history.
Something very similar happened with chicken noodle soup. Now, after eighty years, there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of recipes that call for a can of condensed soup, water and whatever else might be available in the refrigerator or pantry. Campbell’s has of course published quite a few recipes as a way to increase sales, but their efforts are dwarfed by the many contributions of adventurous cooks who simply wanted new dishes for the family table.
When I asked our friend Lorrie for a recipe she remembered from her childhood, she came up with “Aunt Lil’s Tuna Casserole.” It’s a good example of how cooks created variations on the standard tuna noodle casserole. To be entirely honest, I wondered whether we would like this dish, but it turned out to be much tastier than we expected. You should give your family the opportunity to try it too.
Here is Lorrie’s introduction to the recipe:
“This dish was a staple when I was growing up, and as noted in the recipe, my Grandma Quilling used to add a drained can of Veg-All to make it a complete meal. Of course she always had a dessert course, often something one of us had baked (that was often my duty, though Grandma and Aunt Camilla baked as well) or something canned the previous summer–usually applesauce or a peach half in an amazing heavy syrup…
“Aunt Lil’s identity is somewhat shrouded in mystery. My mother claims to have met her, but my Grandpa Q. was an only child and my Grandma had two brothers. Exactly whose aunt she was, no one is quite sure.”
Here is how to make Aunt Lil’s Tuna Casserole.
1 cup rice
1 can tuna
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can chicken noodle soup
2 cans water
1 can Veg-All or or other canned mixed vegetables (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375° and grease a nine by thirteen-inch flat casserole or baking pan.
Spread the rice evenly in the casserole or pan. Flake the tuna evenly over the rice. Use a teaspoon to spoon the mushroom soup and then the chicken noodle soup evenly over the tuna and rice. Drain the vegetables and scatter them over the other ingredients. Rinse the cans with the water and pour it gently into the pan.
Bake uncovered for forty to fifty minutes or until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is done.
Serve with salad, bread and dessert.
NOTES: When we shared this casserole with some friends, I included the vegetables. We all liked it, and a couple of us had seconds. However, we thought that it would be interesting to sprinkle some “crunchies” like crushed corn flakes on top.
Since tuna cans are smaller today than they were a few years ago, you might want to use two cans of tuna. Lorrie says that she sometimes uses two cans.
Although the original recipe does not call for vegetables, I think that her grandmother was right to add them. They add color and flavor.