I grew up in a very WASPy household in the suburbs of Washington, DC. We were the non-drinking, religiously adherent WASPs, and it was the 1970s. My mother Daphne, or as she prefers to be called to this day, Mrs. Montgomery, was impossibly thin, but not because she dieted or smoked or took pills. Quite the contrary: She lived on her nerves. My father had had two tours in Vietnam and, after that, did international aid work with the military in some horrific places.
The only cookbooks I remember my mother having were Peg Bracken's The I Hate to Cook Book and Better Home's New Cook Book. My mother didn't like to cook, and since my father traveled so much and dinner was usually just the two of us, she would rather tick the dinner box at any one of the old-school cafeterias in our city. Those cafeterias specialized in meat loaf, salmon loaf, roast beef, tuna noodle casserole, and turkey tetrazzini—nothing that one couldn't find in the kitchen of the local hospital.
When my mother did cook, what was on the plate wasn't as important as what was on the table. We always ate in the dining room, with china, silver, and crystal. She preferred woven, natural fiber placemats with linen napkins (that we reused several times) with our own personalized silver napkin rings. Mrs. Montgomery also made sure I knew how to properly set a table, serve at the table, and clear a table.
Variation of menu was not something particularly practiced in our home. If my mother had a taste for beef stew, we might have it several times in a week, and not because she had made a large batch of it. One particularly bad week when she had served Spam so often, I couldn't take it anymore and launched a protest.
"This is the fourth time this week we've had to eat Spam,” I complained. “Why are you making us eat Spam again?"
"There is a war going on!"
"I don't think Vietnam counts!"
Not My Mother's Tuna Noodle Casserole
1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
2 celery stalks, diced fine (about 2/3 c.)
1 bunch of scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 c. diced mushrooms
1 1/2 t. Old Bay seasoning
2 T. flour
1 3/4 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. sour cream
1 T. Dijon mustard
6 oz. flat egg noodles
3/4 c. coarsely grated Parmesan
6 oz. chunk white tuna
1/4 c. Parmesan
1 T. minced fresh parsley
1 c. crumbled potato chips
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Butter an 8-inch square glass baking dish and bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Heat olive oil and butter in a medium-large skillet over medium heat.
When the oil is hot and the butter foams, add celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned.
Stir in scallions and mushrooms and cook about 5 minutes.
Add Old Bay seasoning and flour, stir until well mixed, and cook for 2 minutes.
Slowly add milk, stirring well to make sure no lumps form.
Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened.
Remove from heat and adjust seasoning.
Stir in sour cream and mustard.
When water comes to a boil, add noodles and cook until slightly tender but still white in the middle. Drain.
Stir cheese and noodles into the mixture.
Flake tuna into mixture and stir gently.
Pour everything into prepared baking dish.
Combine the topping ingredients and sprinkle over casserole.
Cook until topping is golden brown, about 30-40 minutes.