Flavor of the Week: Hot, Gooey Casserole Love

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13

    Casseroles had always been our sore spot. A baked dish of pasta and protein bound together with cheese or cream of mushroom soup. When Emily and I were dating, I tried to like them. I really did. But when she started working on a cookbook about them, suddenly there was more casserole chatter than I could bear. Of course there were plenty of other factors that lead to our breakup, but the casserole continued to symbolize a fundamental difference of ours.

    So, when I showed up for her annual casserole party—a soirée she’s been throwing for transplanted Midwesterners for four years running—I wasn’t expecting a hot-from-the-oven reception.---

    But Emily’s leaving town. She’s moving back to her hometown of Kansas City, effective immediately. No, she’s not retiring, or starting a family with any of the meth-addicted rednecks who populate the burg. She’s going to keep promoting the cookbook she wrote—and herself—while working on a second tome.

    She was busily wrangling guests and judges, so our conversation went in intermittent snippets. I mingled with her perfectly nice friends, more than a few of whom I was glad to see after more than a year. One, the sound guy, tipped me off that while wine was being doled out for a $9 “suggested donation,” the staff had said it was OK to BYOB. I got myself two Bud tallboys from the Polish market across the street for $3 and felt pretty savvy.

    “So has this changed your opinion of casseroles?” Emily jeered, alluding to an incident late in our relationship (very late—the night I broke up with her, actually) when I may have, under duress, referred to her obsession with casseroles as one of the reasons we would never work.

    “I’ve always liked them just fine,” I said, both trying to be nice and honestly enjoying the hearty and savory, if a bit mysteriously named (Fidel Casserole? Caulifornication?), assortment of baked fare piled on my Styrofoam plate.

    “Have you read the introduction to my book?” she asked a guy she’d just introduced me to. In said introduction, she refers to an ex-boyfriend who dumped her “because [she] made casseroles and sang bad karaoke.” Moments before, after introducing me to someone else that way, she’d half-apologized for doing so; my response of, “Well, we’re not exactly friends,” was met with an all-the-more-icy “No, we are definitely not friends.”

    “Oh,” I said with a slightly exasperated smile. “Well, if it’s in your book, it must be 100-percent factually accurate! Argument over, I guess.” My voice was dripping with gleeful sarcasm.

    “I’m Tom,” said the guy caught between us.

    “Nice to meet you, Tom. I’m contentious.”

    Gently poking fun while still being supportive, right? Anyway, what does it matter? Not trying to get back together, just to win. And even the stakes in that game are not particularly high anymore.

    I moved around the room tasting the casserole entries. Some of the dishes were really good, I must say. I particularly enjoyed the entry from a chef for whom I cooked for several ill-fated months in 2005 and whom Emily had invited. He had come hoping to see me, thinking Emily and I were still together. When he asked her if I was coming, she said, “Funny you should ask! We haven’t seen each other in a year and a half, but yes.”

    His dish was more of a braise, so he didn’t expect to (and didn’t) win—that honor went to Caulifornication—but when I walked past the counter, one of the kitchen staff pointed at the chef’s Dutch oven, giving the knowing thumbs up of professional recognition. It was indeed a cut above the rest—hearty and tasty, with a creamy mashed potato top and falling-apart chunks of beef. It was fine dining, the kind of food I like to eat, and ultimately lost on a crowd that gives points for creative use of canned peas.

    Some of the other dishes I could have taken or left, but I was hungry and there was tasty grub to be found. I finished my plate like a good boy, leaving only a couple of bites of something cheesy and/or fishy that I couldn’t recognize. As I leaned over to toss my plate in the garbage, I caught Emily checking me out a little bit. “You’ve lost weight. You’re definitely smaller than you were,” she said.

    I shrugged, gave a bashful smile and admitted it. “Maybe a little bit.” Maybe I’m not eating as much casserole. As I lined up to leave with a couple of her friends who were also headed back to South Brooklyn on the G, she bid me a polite, almost friendly, good-bye with a quick kiss on the cheek.

    As we boarded the train, an adorably quirky Greenpoint-y girl in flesh-colored glasses spotted one of ours carrying a casserole dish. “Are you all coming from The Casserole Party?” she asked, excitedly. People actually liked this stuff. Maybe Emily had been on to something. Maybe what came between us was what brought her closer to other people. Maybe what made her impossible for me to deal with was what was going to make her famous, from Missouri to New York City and— Godspeed, Casserole Queen!—back.

    Chris Varmus, a freelance writer and part-time “manny,” is currently working on a book about his exes; meanwhile, his exes are all apparently writing books about him.