Holiday Heartbreak: My Mother’s Bittersweet Broccoli Casserole

I didn’t expect that a casserole would make me cry.

I should have known. It was, after all, my mother’s famous Broccoli Casserole, the one she served every Thanksgiving to an eager table of hungry family members and friends. And seeing as how I hadn’t tasted the mainstay, not once, in the nearly three years since she passed away… well, it was pretty much inevitable that when I nailed the recipe on the first try, my emotions would get the best of me.

Mom inherited the recipe from her friend Mary Pat in the late 1970s. The first year she made it, the story goes, my family was less than enthusiastic. In fact, some of them simply refused to taste the dish. My gentle immigrant grandfather, a man who would eat anything you put in front of him, led this skeptical pack. So my mother, never one to take an insult lying down, stomped around the dinner table, testily spooning out portions of the cheesy, gooey concoction onto every. single. person’s. plate.

The following Thanksgiving, most of the original naysayers nonchalantly asked if she’d possibly maybe be making that casserole again. After that, it became tradition. She occasionally considered cooking it in the “off season,” but she felt it wouldn’t be as special if she made it more frequently.

I agree.

Even after many of our family members passed away and the rest scattered, after Thanksgiving became just my mother, my father, and me, she made a full table of food every November — turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, biscuits, cranberry sauce, and, of course, the Broccoli Casserole.

Cooking became for me after Mom died from a heart attack on the morning of Dec. 1, 2006. She had been a stay-at-home mom throughout my life, and my memories of her usually revolved around the dishes she made and the time we spent in our large, sunny Oklahoma kitchen. When I began living on my own and making my own forays into the culinary world, I’d frequently call her, sometimes two to three times a night, asking about substitutions and measurements, cooking temperatures and times. If a recipe was especially good, I’d email it to her. Sometimes she’d argue with me about certain things, like the oven-fried chicken recipe that called for the chicken thighs to cook for 45 minutes on each side (“They’ll be too dry!” she protested. “Mom, I swear, I’ve made it a million times and it’s great. It’s 45 minutes,” I said. “OK, if you say so, but I think they’ll be dry,” she clucked as she gathered the ingredients. She later called me raving about how moist they were).

It wasn’t until almost two years after her death that I slowly started cooking more for myself and others. It was harder than I thought to not share my hits and misses with my foodie Mom. So when a friend invited me to a 4th of July barbecue back in 2008 and asked me to bring a covered dish, I decided to try out Mom’s Broccoli Casserole.

Initially, my Dad and I were worried that she hadn’t written it down. Sometimes, if she made something enough times, she’d go by sheer muscle memory and periodic taste tests in the kitchen. But a few weeks before the barbecue, Dad and I were sifting through her Ziploc bag of recipe index cards, and we found the casserole recipe — two copies, in fact. I took one home with me, pinned it on my kitchen bulletin board, and began playing guessing games with the cryptic portions.

While not as bad as some of my grandmother’s original recipe cards — a pinch of this, some of that, a little of this, that to taste, whole steps left out — the Broccoli Casserole card left me scratching my head at turns.

“Six frozen chopped broccoli.”

Six what? Six ounces? Six bags? Six pounds? I vaguely remembered her using those little boxes of frozen broccoli, but I couldn’t be sure.

“2-4 oz. shredded cheddar cheese.”

Why 2-4? Why not 8? Or did she mean “two to four”? I brought it to friends and tried to figure it out. I finally settled on 2 pounds of frozen cut broccoli (slight error in judgment — it needed to be chopped not merely cut, and I spent a bit of time after cooking it cutting it down to more manageable pieces while trying not to scald my hands) and 8 ounces of shredded cheddar. I had intended to make the full recipe, but ended up with half. Before it went into the oven, I tasted a bit… and it was dead on.

And that’s when I cried.

It was partially the memory of how it tasted, the memories of childhood Thanksgivings spent with family in Chicago and, later, in Florida with my parents. It was partially the idea that I’d made something that had been my mother’s territory alone, and the notion that she’d somehow watched over me while I made it for the first time.

I didn’t let myself cry for long, and I went about preparing for the barbecue. The casserole was a hit with my friends, and only a small spoonful remained.

The tradition of the Broccoli Casserole carries on, then — and carries through all our family Thanksgivings from here on out (that 4th of July barbecue was the last time I made the dish outside of the fall holiday season).

Fran’s Famous Broccoli Casserole

2 pounds frozen chopped broccoli
1 10.5-ounce can cream of mushroom soup
4 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 cups mayonnaise
1/2 box cheese nip crackers, crushed fine
1 package shredded almonds

Preheat oven to 350. Cook broccoli. Put in bowl. Mix soup, mayonnaise, lemon and cheese. Pour into 2 quart casserole. Top with cheese nips and almonds. Cook one hour. Serves 6-8.

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2 thoughts on “Holiday Heartbreak: My Mother’s Bittersweet Broccoli Casserole

  1. Stephanie says:

    I made your mom’s broccoli casserole for Thanksgiving! I loved it and was hoping my Fiancé would change his mind about broccoli, alas that is not what happened. But I’ll definitely make it again! 🙂

    • capellett says:

      I’m so glad you made it and liked it! Don’t worry about your fiance — for some people, not even copious amounts of cheese,mayo, and crackers can make broccoli OK 🙂

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