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Casseroles made and missed: Why so many obituaries honor this treasured dish

(Diana Ejaita/For The Washington Post)

With her Department 56 Christmas village and mistletoe doilies in place, Lynda Finch spent last Christmas Eve cooking a smorgasbord for her family to graze on the next day. That night, with green bean salad, mashed potatoes, stuffed mushrooms, bacon-wrapped hors d’oeuvres and chile relleno casserole prepped and tucked into the refrigerator, Finch went to bed and died in her sleep at age 73.

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Her obituary, published last January in the Bakersfield Californian, tells the story, including this detail: “she had ... printed a recipe for Chili Relleno Casserole and set it next to the oven. The last word on her recipe simply said ‘YUM!’”

From March 2020 through October 2021, 430 obituaries referencing casseroles have been published in American newspapers and on the online obituary platform Legacy.com. In addition to Finch, there’s Affie Spivey of Belvidere, N.C., who “rarely missed welcoming a new baby or consoling a family with a visit and a batch of muffins or a home-cooked casserole.” There’s also Constance Bradbury of St. George, Utah, who so enjoyed casserole baking that her family asked: “In lieu of flowers, and in honor of her, make a casserole for someone you love or for someone in need.”

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From 2019 to 2020, the number of obituaries published on Legacy.com that referenced casseroles rose by 43 percent. The country’s heightened death toll certainly contributed to the increase. Three-quarters of the subjects whose obits mention casseroles were 75 or older, a group that makes up more than half the country’s covid-19 deaths. But the obituaries also hint at what we lost: shared meals and the people who cooked them.

“An obituary is the last public memory we have of a person, and in a society where we value individuals, where everyone is supposed to be equal, how we remember individuals is important,” says Janice Hume, an obituary scholar and journalism professor at the University of Georgia. “Then, in aggregate, those memories tell us something about who we are.”

In reading each one and documenting the subjects’ gender, hometown and casserole legacies, a portrait began to emerge. Eighty-eight percent were women, seven of whom identified as “casserole queens.” Tuna and broccoli were the most frequently memorialized casseroles, the former not always fondly, and Evelyn Brooks of Edmund, Okla., was one of four mothers known for “mystery casseroles, meaning the ingredients are still unknown,” according to Brooks’s obituary published in the Oklahoman.

Most, but not all, of the subjects were White. However, a search for obituaries with macaroni and cheese or enchiladas (casseroles by another name) yields a richer representation of American cooks. Before she died at 86, Shirley Seals’s “cooking was unmatched — especially her macaroni and cheese,” read her obituary in the Detroit Free Press.

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Jessica Galdiano, who died at 77, was “famous for her fantastic chicken enchiladas, chile Colorado and was one of the best tortilla makers around,” read her obituary in the Sacramento Bee. She hosted enchilada parties once or twice a year for special occasions, her son Javier Silva said in an interview. “It was a big event. You’d get on the phone, and say, ‘Hey, mom’s making enchiladas.’ Everybody came over — 20 or 30 people, lifelong friends and family.”

Among the 49 men whose obituaries mentioned casseroles were potluck club member John Verduin Jr. of Carbondale, Ill., and 92-year-old Vito Scigliuto of Syracuse, N.Y., known for his melanzana casserole (just imagine him pronouncing it thick-accented as “moolinjohn”).

But it’s women, according to Hume, who historically have been remembered in domestic terms and for their service to others, a sweet spot for casserole devotees. “It’s not to say [the women] wouldn’t love it or that it’s a negative, but we remember people with our own gender biases intact,” says Hume.

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The women remembered for their casseroles were mothers, caregivers and volunteers. They navigated entering the workplace full-time — take 91-year-old Doris Colvin of Louisville, “an independent woman who made the world’s best broccoli casserole” and “the first female to head the accounting department at Louisville Title Insurance Company,” according to her obituary in the Courier-Journal. Casseroles — quick to prepare, economical, improvisational and crowd-pleasing — helped these busy women feed their families and get on with living.

Born in 1937 in rural Alabama, Willie Morris was a country cook with a farm and kitchen garden at her disposal. In addition to her duties as church elder, devoted poll worker, and supervisor at the Helen Keller School, the Talladega County native could “whip up a ‘potato pie,’ a pan of dressing or a squash casserole without any thought,” read her obituary in the Daily Home.

Quentin Morris, the youngest of her five children, can’t recall his mom ever referencing cookbooks or recipes, and when his wife tried to replicate the squash casserole — a combination of yellow squash, onion, cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta and possibly egg with a Ritz cracker topping — “it wasn’t the same,” he said in an interview.

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The obituary for Betty Gulbranson, a single mom in Yakima Valley, Wash., who died at 87, described her as a product of the Great Depression. “Betty was forever saving and scrimping,” her obit read. “She earned the title ‘container lady’ because of her vast, yet neatly organized, collection of butter, cool whip, and lunchmeat tubs. … She was also a master of stretching meals, turning leftovers into delicious casseroles, soups, omelets, and other gastronomic feats.”

Gulbranson fed her family in between DIY home renovations, nights out dancing with girlfriends and carting kids to extracurriculars, and her no-fuss repertoire relied heavily upon cream of mushroom soup and recipes she clipped from the backs of food packages. “When she started working retail and had three kids, she had to shortcut things,” says daughter Angie Girard, who remembers her mom’s tuna noodle casserole and a “gut bomb” beef-tater tot casserole that Girard’s sons now make.

Food was never Mary Hendrick’s focus, either, “but it played a part in bringing people together,” says daughter Janet Clark. “She probably realized that food was an instrument to use.”

A master entertainer and champion for civil rights in Jackson, Miss., Hendrick and her husband, Jim, a local pediatrician, helped start a dinner club in which White and Black couples would host each other in their homes. In the summer of 1961, she joined a group of primly dressed church ladies who delivered sandwiches to jailed Freedom Riders. Visiting dignitaries, professors, and friends of friends made up a near constant procession to her home, often unannounced. “People just came, and she took them in and fed them,” says Clark.

A fixture of those dinners was Hendrick’s signature sweet potato casserole, documented in Jackson’s Junior League cookbook, adopted by families all over town and remembered in her obituary in the Clarion-Ledger. But after Hendrick died, at 99 and from complications of covid-19, her daughters found out their mother had cribbed the casserole recipe from a friend whose family had been miffed about it for years. “They never said anything directly to us, but it was known that my mother had taken credit for Clara Cavett’s recipe,” says Clark. “We were stunned.”

Patricia Janvrin’s casserole legacy is less scandalous and more of an inside joke. “Though very accomplished in the kitchen, her only notable failure was following the recipe for Total Casserole (hopefully a mystery to Google), teaching us that recipes are guidelines, not gospel,” reads Janvrin’s obituary in the Greenville News.

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The mother of three taught each of her sons to cook such Lithuanian specialties as hearty, bacon-laced potato kugelis. At Christmas, she made marzipan and hard candies. Janvrin even hand-rolled pastas on weeknights. She also worked as a butcher, breaking down whole sides of beef and pork.

But one night, she mixed together a few cups of Total cereal, sausage, eggs and other ingredients lost to time and memory, and “it tasted like cardboard,” recalls son Jeff Janvrin. “We didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t waste anything. My dad tried to convince us it was edible. Finally, he even gave up on it.” When the family dog, not exactly known for its discretion, refused to eat the casserole, the meal became legend.

How does a dish become so emblematic of a life that it works itself into a final narrative? For Janvrin, it was a single disaster in a sea of fabulous meals. Some casseroles, such as Hendrick’s/Cavett’s, were truly exceptional. For Willie Morris, repetition baked itself into her children’s taste memory. For most, the act of making and sharing casseroles was love manifested and now mourned.

Lynda Finch’s epic 1,508-word obituary tells the story of a matriarch, genealogist extraordinaire, RV enthusiast, fanatical Christmas decorator, and her unforgettable final meal. Last Christmas, as distraught as they were, the Finch family followed the instructions Lynda left by the oven. They finished assembling the dishes she had prepared for them.

“We ate that food all day,” says Michael Finch, the middle of her three sons. “I really believe that was her last gift to us. We were not going to watch that go to waste.”

Hatchett is a writer and senior editor at Plate magazine and host of the casserole-themed podcast Cream of Caroline. She lives in New York City.

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