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Love—and Casseroles—in the Time of COVID-19

During the pandemic, once-ordinary dinners with friends take on new meaning.

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I confess I felt suspicious when my neighbor, a native Texan and gourmet chef, asked to borrow two nine-by-thirteen inch baking pans. What was D’Arcy cooking up this time? She wouldn’t explain, though I knew that Sunday she would host one of our regular dinner and movie parties. Each month, we move to a different house where one member fixes food to accompany a film. The longtime gatherings, which we’ve moved to porches and backyards since March 2020, have become a kind of lifeline during the pandemic.

Our group, once small, has gradually grown over the years. Almost every month since February 2016, we have shared experiences and memories prompted by our meals and movies. The regulars are women with family ties worldwide who randomly met in suburban Houston. D’Arcy and two others are native Texans; one is a New Englander who married a Texan. Another grew up in the Philippines, one has a brother in Poland and a husband from Bangladesh, and another is originally from Mexico. Foreign films are often favored. We’ve dined on homemade chicken tikka masala to accompany The Hundred-Foot Journey, gorged on paella with Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, and consumed various Italian, French, Polish, and Chinese feasts. In 2020 and 2021, many meals have been simpler and our gatherings have been masked, sometimes huddled around backyard campfires.

When I arrived at D’Arcy’s house in late November, I was dismayed to hear her announce a midwestern theme. On the menu: casseroles and a salad of iceberg lettuce. 

I bristled. My mom, who was visiting that week, and I were the only midwesterners at the table. Personally, I avoid casseroles. And as a native Nebraskan, I dislike some stereotypes about the country’s center. In fact, I generally find the “Midwest” label inadequate to encapsulate the vast territory it encompasses, from Great Lakes states like Ohio, to those once part of the grassy Great Plains that extend south into Texas and west to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. If this were a Nebraskan “midwestern” dinner, I told my friends, we’d be digging into thick grass-fed steaks and slathering salad with Dorothy Lynch dressing.

Then recognition dawned: D’Arcy was focused further north. “You mean ‘hotdish?’” I said. That’s Minnesotan for casseroles.

My friends there, all of whom I met as a working mom, knew little about my childhood. So I told them about my paternal grandmother, Yvonne, a Swedish-American from southern Minnesota who had a million casserole recipes. In fact, every cookbook she ever gave me, of which there are many, features hotdish. Yvonne outlived two husbands in her 90 years, but casseroles were a constant companion from cradle to grave. Her funeral supper, held in the basement of an 19th century pioneer church, included dozens of casseroles, surrounded by a multi-colored jiggling palette of Jell-O salads.

I kept her cookbooks, but I make only one casserole a year, on Thanksgiving: the classic green bean. I break with tradition by using fresh beans, though I always include the requisite cream of mushroom soup and sprinkle crunchy onions on top. 

How, I wondered, could I now consume an entire dinner of casseroles after decades of avoiding them? But when the dishes appeared on D’Arcy’s table—one with squash, another with kale topped with crunchy onions, and a third filled with ground beef and tater tots—I felt surprisingly moved. After a few forkfuls, my pandemic life in Texas connected with long-ago visits to Minnesota. Just like that, I was a little girl back at grandma’s.

In fact, in late 2021, the simple act of sharing that table with those friends was nearly enough to bring me to tears. 

During the pandemic, our gatherings have become even more meaningful. Each of us has been through so much: Some friends nursed relatives sick with COVID-19 and fell ill themselves. We all saw our children struggle in school; some failed classes, left classrooms where they felt unsafe, and fell into despair. I lost a former colleague to COVID-19. Another friend at our table just lost her brother.

With all the uncertainty and tragedy in our lives, these seemingly ordinary meals, even casseroles, somehow transcend the banal. As we mix up old recipes, we conjure up memories, forge deeper connections, and somehow find hope.