Sunday, May 15, 2011

These Gleaming Vessels: A Brief History of the Casserole

I was having a conversation about casserole - never mind with whom! Why must you pry into every aspect of my fascinating life? My friend and I were wondering about the origins and exact definition of a casserole. I promised to go home and look up "casserole" in my OXFORD COMPANION TO FOOD, but I never did... UNTIL NOW. Hold onto your hats! A casserole is "a covered heat proof vessel in which food is cooked and served or, by extension, the food cooked in such a vessel. The word has a complicated history, starting with a classical Greek term for a cup (kuathos), progressing to a Latin word (cattia), which could mean both ladle and pan, then becoming an old French word." The author of THE OXFORD COMPANION TO FOOD goes on to note "the remarkable fact [if you say so - ed.] that there has been a sudden and complete change in the meaning of casserole in English in the last 100 years." Have you stopped reading yet? If so you will not find out that "some time around the 1870s" a casserole stopped being "a dish of cooked rice moulded into the shape of a casserole cooking pot and then filled with a savoury mixture, say of chicken or sweetbreads" and for no apparent reason, out of the blue, became "a dish of meat, vegetable, and stock or other liquid, cooked slowly in the oven in a closed pot, its current sense. On the French side, it is of interest [sure it is - ed.] that when Favre wrote his huge culinary encyclopedia (1883-92) a casserole was defined as a tinned copper cooking pot, well suited to being displayed on the wall in order to impress visitors with the wealth and highly civilized lifestyle of the owners 'who live on food prepared in these gleaming vessels.'"