Judy Nichols Gets to the Bottom of the Casserole Dish

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Ah, the holidays. Christmas is all about love, sharing, sweetness and light -- and keeping the antacids handy. In keeping with the spirit of the season, Chow Bella presents "Eating Christmas," in which some of our favorite writers nosh on the real lessons we learn this time of year. Today, Judy Nichols has a tale that, despite appearances, isn't corny at all.

To me, Christmas is Kansas roads, drifting snow and corn casserole, a down-home dish that gets no respect until you taste it.

When I was little, we would drive for hours across the flat farmland to get from one house of grandparents to another, the beams of our headlights catching only snowflakes and the unending yellow centerline of a Kansas highway.

See also: - Kim Porter's Ham Taco Christmas - "Eating Christmas" archives

My sister and I would squeal as we reached the familiar turnoff to Hanover and came over the hill to see the tiny main drag lined with twinkly lights and big plastic candy canes. It looked like the North Pole.

My grandmother Ida would be watching through the frosty window in her front door, waiting with a table loaded with steaming food: pheasant my grandfather had saved from a hunt, potatoes dug from the backyard garden after the first frost and stored in the root cellar, jars of pickles put up in the heat of summer with help from the neighbor ladies, and homemade pie made from frozen cherries picked off the tree outside the back porch.

At the Dunwells, my father's side, my grandmother Mollie laid a table with recipes born of the Depression, like meatballs stretched with rice, and rabbits she trapped in the back yard.

Her corn casserole was brilliant in its Kansas flavor and its mistake-proof simplicity. The "recipe" is not written anywhere, just remembered, passed from my father's mother, to my mother, to me: a can of creamed corn, an egg and saltine crackers, crushed, some stirred in and some sprinkled on top. Bake at 350 degrees until golden and set in the middle. It is easily expanded to feed whatever number is coming to dinner.

The first time I made it for my Italian in-laws in New York, they scoffed as it bubbled in the oven.

"Oh my, you opened a can of corn," Carmella said, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "You'd better sit down." Granted, my brother-in-law, Ray, had spent hours making lobster sauce for the pasta.

But once that piece of Kansas Depression hit the table, the Italians were beguiled, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they "woofed" it. In fact, Carmella was so enamored, that corn casserole became her go-to dish.

Unfortunately, she keeps trying variations, like adding a higher proportion of egg to make a sort of corn soufflé, or using Triscuits instead of saltines. Do not go there.

I will admit to two slight alterations: using one can of drained whole-kernel corn for every can of creamed corn to give the dish more texture, and adding more crackers than my grandmother did to make it stiffer. Any other changes mess with perfection.

My grandmother died while I was in college and, in March, my father passed away. I realize that it's time to teach the next generation how to make corn casserole so, this year, my son Nate, a college freshman, will be crunching the crackers.

And I hope that, somewhere on Staten Island, Carmella will be handing the can opener to her son Mario.

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