I worked my last shift at the restaurant last night. About a week ago, I asked Chef if I could cook supper for the staff as my goodbye present. He prepares a “family meal,” as he calls it, from time to time. Now it was my turn. For our last supper, I chose to prepare one of my favorite dishes growing up: King Ranch Casserole.
The King Ranch was a giant ranch that took of most of Texas that lies between Corpus Christi (the city of my birth) and Brownsville. It was a cattle ranch, so there is some question as to whether they really invented a chicken dish. Texas Monthly ran an article some time back that expanded on the origins of the casserole:
No one seems to know who invented it. The casserole may have come to King Ranch, but the descendants of Captain Richard King prefer to tout their beef and game dishes. “Kind of strange, a King Ranch casserole made with chicken,” noted Martin Clement, the head of the public relations for the ranch. Mary Lewis Kleberg, the widow of Dick Kleberg, admits that her heart sinks every time a well-meaning hostess prepares it in her honor. Most likely the dish got its name from an enterprising South Texas hostess or a King Ranch cook whose preference for a poultry doomed him to obscurity.
Yet King Ranch casserole’s general origins are easy to discern. Certainly it owes a deep debt to chilaquilas, which also contain chicken, cheese, tomatoes, tortilla chips, and chilies–the staples that campesinos often combine to stretch one meal into two while retaining a semblance of nutrition. But the dish owes as much to post-World War II cooking, when casseroles made with canned soups were the space-age cuisine. Because they could be made quickly and made for later use, casseroles liberated the lady of the house. ” The perfect entree for a minimum amount of time in the kitchen for the hostess,” the McAllen Junior League cookbook notes. The recipe made its way from one woman’s club to another, networking in its most fundamental form. ” It was one of those recipes that everybody just had a screaming fit trying to get,” Mrs. Joe Gardner of Corpus Christi recalls.
If the women of the fifties loved this recipe because it freed them of the family kitchen, their children love it because it takes them back there. They have adapted it to their taste, of course: Trendy cooks now substitute flour tortillas for corn, while the truly convenience-crazed use Doritos. Purists doctor the recipe for sour cream–a move back toward Mexican authenticity. Houston’s Graham Catering has come up with a low-salt version. Even that bastion of Junior Leaguedom, San Antonio’s Bright Shawl lunchroom, has changed with the times. Chef Mark Green has followed the lead of the late Dallas gourmet guru Helen Corbitt by dropping canned soups; he now adds his own “roux” of milk, shredded cheese, garlic, and sliced mushrooms. “It sells good,” he says. “It goes fast.”
My version is more like Mark Green’s than my mother’s; I didn’t open any cans. I made enough for at least twenty; the twelve folks working ate it all. I posted the recipe here.
I timed the serving of our meal to happen before the dinner service got busy, so we all stood around in the kitchen with our bowls and talked and laughed. “The reason I cooked dinner tonight,” I told them, “was to say thank you. This has been my favorite kitchen to work in and, even though it’s been a short time, I’m sad to leave. Thanks for our time together.”
At the end of the evening, they gave me a card, a Red Sox lottery ticket with a chance to win season tickets for life (it wasn’t a winner), and bought me a couple of Guinesses for the road.
“We’ll miss you,” one of the servers said. “You’re nice and you can cook; do you know how hard that is to find in this business?”
I was grateful for the compliment.