I am not descended from a casserole lineage. Or Southerners. Or people who make a big fuss at the holidays. But my husband is. And on the first Christmas we spent as a couple, I tried to get in good with the might-be in-laws, down in the Tar Heel State. I'd dutifully decked halls, wrapped boxes, faked my way through unfamiliar hymns and was stirring a potful of glögg on his sister's stove when his niece walked in, cursing herself.
"Dammit! I forgot to make the cheesy pineapple casserole!"
Do what now? Despite the family's stellar hospitality, I was already feeling unmoored, a rootless, lapsed-Catholic, Brooklyn freak who'd brought little to the festivities besides the proclivity to heat up a pot of red wine, spiced oranges, ginger and brandy (so, so much brandy). The words "cheesy," "pineapple" and "casserole" clashed into each other, then against my skull and clunked to the floor.
Not out of snobbery, God, no. One of my favorite things about Douglas was (and is) his Southern warmth and politesse, and I (naively) fancied myself a scholar of Southern foodways, boning up on heirloom ham artisans and fetishy biscuit techniques for a few years prior. Problem was, all that knowledge was pretty academic and precious—a far cry from the church cookbook staples served in actual Southerners' homes during the holidays. I was just used to clarity, not casserole: turkey, greens, stuffing, starch. It was just a little bit too much culture shock at once, all heaped into a buttered-up pan.
The glögg and a Christmas morning mimosa (or three) set me a splash more at ease, but a couple of presents from the family—a "bible" of Southern cooking and the Junior League of High Point's Furniture City Feasts, Restored—sent a pretty clear message: Love us; learn to love our food.
The first part was easy. The second . . . that was another story. I pored over Feasts and rolled my eyes at the ingredients for Cucumber Congealed salad (lime gelatin, vinegar, onion mayonnaise, cucumber) and heaved involuntarily at the ingredients for Pineapple Gratin, aka the cheesy pineapple casserole I'd escaped, er, missed out on Christmas Day: two (2) kinds of canned pineapple, butter, sugar, cheese and to top it off, a sleeve of Ritz crackers. I'm not a health freak by anyone's reckoning, but just reading it made my skin feel waxen. I tucked the book away—until the next year and another Christmas with the might-be relatives.
And by then, there was even more at stake. Douglas and I had signed a lease on a new apartment, one we would share, and we were going to break the news to his octogenarian mother over the holiday. I grabbed the grater and got to work, swallowing down my worry as I stirred in each ingredient: canned fruit, sugar, fat, processed and salty crackers. Here goes everything.
I barely had room to fit in the first bite, but I did, and a second and a third. And then I sidled back to the buffet for another helping. Like the celebration itself, yeah, it's pretty cheesy, but wonderfully sweet at its core. And once a year, even an angst-ridden Yankee like me can stomach a little joy and jolly.
But I have yet to deal with the congeal.
Cheesy Pineapple Casserole
Recipe adapted from "Furniture City Feasts, Restored" (2006)
Yield: 8 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
One 15-ounce can pineapple chunks, drained
One 15-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons self-rising flour
2 cups (6 ounces) sharp cheddar, shredded
1 sleeve Ritz crackers, crushed
½ cup butter, melted
1. Preheat the oven to 350º. In a bowl, combine the pineapple, sugar, flour and cheese; stir until well mixed, then spoon into a greased 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Layer evenly with cracker crumbs and drizzle with the melted butter.
2. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the mixture is bubbly. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.