Well, that’s not pasta, you say, that looks like tuna noodle casserole!
You’re so clever. It is indeed tuna noodle casserole, and I will argue that it qualifies as Saturday Evening Pasta. See, the only difference between pasta and noodles is the language spoken while making them. The word “pasta” is Italian, meaning “paste” or “dough”, and the word “noodle” is German, but has the same meaning. Both words refer to a flour and water, or flour and egg dough that is cut, shaped, and boiled. (source: McGee, On Food and Cooking)
Now that that’s out of the way, back to the tuna noodle casserole. It’s familiar to all of us of a certain age, who grew up eating the stuff, especially those who grew up eating fish on Fridays. It’s another one of those concoctions that everyone’s mother and grandmother probably makes their own variation of, as is evidenced by a Google search for “tuna noodle casserole”. It’s tough to nail down its origins; it seems to have sprung forth fully formed in the 1950’s, from the kitchens of middle class families everywhere in the United States. My first pass at a guess would be either a canned tuna or condensed soup company was trying to sell their product to housewives, who were becoming enamored with the convenience of packaged ingredients that made providing dinner “a snap!”. I will be chasing this down when I have more time.
I didn’t have any cream of celery soup, so I hacked it by sautéing 4 chopped celery ribs in 4 tablespoons of butter, salt, and pepper, until they were softened, added 2 tablespoons of flour and cooked it for a minute, stirred in first 1 cup of milk, then 3 cups of water, brought the whole thing to a boil, and simmered until the celery was completely soft. I pureed the soup with the immersion blender, and it was just about the same as the canned version, but the flavor was cleaner and fresher.
The rest ran pretty true to its traditional form. I mixed a pound of cooked medium egg noodles and 2 cans of tuna with the soup, stirred in some frozen green peas, topped it with some dried breadcrumbs and butter, and baked it for 30 minutes at 350 deg.F.
While I was making the soup, I thought about my own childhood version of this dish. My mother’s version was a simple homemade white sauce, tuna, and noodles, and never even made it to the oven to bake. I began to wonder why this was, if the two dishes were even related or just coincidental. Did this dish get passed down this way because it was quicker than a casserole? Did one of the women in my family lack the extras (frozen peas, breadcrumbs, or like some recipes, cheese and crushed potato chips) to stir in, so simply didn’t bother putting it in the oven to bake? I will probably never know. There aren’t too many people left to ask, and memories are failing. There were so many sad, heartbreaking stories my family did not fully share with us growing up, that I fear many good ones got lost in the shuffle.
Who knew tuna noodle casserole could prove so thought-provoking?