Reading John Birdsall’s hefty biography of James Beard, The Man Who Ate Too Much, motivated me to go through some of Beard’s cookbooks. He was prolific author and definitely earned his place among those cooks who influenced American cuisine by emphasizing seasonality, using local ingredients, and eschewing the mid-century elitism epitomized in Gourmet Magazine and its Francophile editors.
Of his many offerings, perhaps the most popular and famous is The James Beard Cookbook. It was originally published in paperback-format by Dell in 1959 and, only later, in a hardcover version in 1961. It was and is, to some degree, still a best seller and also established Beard as, to use Julia Child’s epithet “The Dean of American Cuisine.”
One of the book’s first recipes to grab my attention was for “Scalloped Tuna.” That it appeared under the category of “Fish Casseroles” made it even more appealing since as a kid, influenced by 50s television shows, I frequently asked my mother for tuna casserole and, just as frequently, my request was denied: “We’re Italian; we don’t do that” was her sole explanation.
So now, some sixty years later, I decided to fulfill my desire for this classic dish and make this staple American cooking. Beard’s recipe called for readily available ingredients and the directions comprised all of five sentences. Because the amount of tuna in a can slowly decreased from 6 or 7 ounces to 4 ounces, however, I used three cans rather than two. Similarly, the call for two large onions from the 50s was fulfilled by a one colossal Spanish onion.
I prepped the ingredients (there was a lot of chopping—celery, garlic, onions, bell pepper, parsley), combined as directed with smashed crackers, melted butter, and beaten egg, poured everything into a buttered Pyrex casserole (couldn’t get more American than that) and baked. To indulge my husband’s ask for a crusty top, I sprinkled the top of the casserole with some of the left-over cracker crumbs before the required dotting with butter.
While the casserole baked, it filled the kitchen with tantalizing aromas that only raised our expectations for the dish. After about 35 minutes, it was nicely browned, looked appetizing, and plated easily. We took our first bites: “Hmm,” said my husband. “Hmm,” I replied. We took our second bites: “Not so bad,” said my husband; “Not so bad, I replied.” And that’s the best we could say about it. It was lightly textured, adequately flavored, but that was all. Perhaps my mother was right.
P.S. My better-half suggested that rather than baking the mixture, we should have made fishcakes and shallow fried them on the stovetop. To prove his point, he took a crusty piece from the edge of the casserole and dipped it in a little ketchup. I don’t think I’ll be making either anytime soon.
Scalloped Tuna (adapted from a recipe in The James Beard Cookbook)
3 (4 oz.) cans tuna chunks
1 ½ cups coarse cracker crumbs (I used Saltines.)
1 cup of chopped celery
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 large onions, chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
½ cup chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
½ cup melted butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F
2. Roll out crackers with a rolling pin until they are coarse crumbs.
3. Combine with the tuna chunks and the chopped vegetables.
4. Season with salt and pepper and mix with the melted butter and beaten eggs.
5. Pour into a buttered casserole and sprinkle with additional crumbs and dot with bits of butter.
6. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.
Serve on heated plates.
Wine Pairing: Chardonnay