California Casserole

Cover of the 1950s classic. Note the happy elves lifting meat and such so as to lend a helpful hand to busy housewives. "This meal will be ready in a jiffy!"

In the Cold War years, California held all the promise of the American Dream: sunshine, convertibles, vast tracts of  housing developments, quaint “ethnic” people.  And for the harried housewives of Toledo, Tulsa and Philadelphia, nothing conjured the warm, exotic, golden fantasy of  freedom and sophistication like California-inspired cuisine.

Imagine doing dishes by hand while your husband watches “Quiz Show” on the television set.  The kids fight over the latest comic book, and you still have to patch those pair of trousers where Jim dropped hot ashes from his pipe and singed a hole right through the crotch.  You stare out the window into the 57th day of grey clouds and snow flurries and wonder, “Could there be more?”

And the National Live Stock and Meat Board Homemaker’s Service Department answered with a resounding “Yes!”

Emerging from the past like some drug induced Walt Disney dream sequence is the Fantasy of Foods Cook Book.  This little 39-pager is packed with protein recipes, hors d’oeuvres, baked goods, kids meals, butchering tips and little elves.

The culinary artists of the Meat Board devised these dishes to be economical, easy to prepare, and as one recipe states “A winner with the men.”  And this recipe fits the bill.

Where else would you find the seemingly contradictory ingredients of dried beef, reconstituted onion, lard, milk and American Cheese?  It’s already a winner with me.

As I ate at cafeterias on the east coast and elsewhere, I was always struck by how a dish got the moniker “Californian”.  Invariably this meant the inclusion of some exotic ingredient like peppers, cheese, and especially ripe olives.  The miracle of canning allowed these little darlings to be shipped to the most barren culinary deserts of the midwest and northeast, lending an air of exoticism to any suburban relish plate.  (In the 1970s and 80s, avocado in anything demanded the label “Californian.”)

Helpful butchering tips from The Meat Board

The Fantasy of Foods Cook Book (no date, but probably 1950s) was published by the National Live Stock and Meat Board of Chicago.  “The Meat Board” as it was simply known, was an industry group formed in 1922 with the driving goal of “promoting all red meats: beef, lamb and pork through research, education and information.”  Essentially this was a powerful group of lobbyists who tried to affect taxes, import quotas, and environmental and health policies on a national level.  In 1996 the pork and lamb segments spun off (pork is a “white meat”, after all), and the Meat Board merged with the National Cattlemen’s Association to become the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA)

The National Live Stock and Meat Board hosted a variety of promotional events in its day, including road shows to demonstrate meat techniques to the busy housewives of America and promote meat consumption.  This pamphlet is obviously part of that educational mission.

Like most of my vintage cookbooks, this one is loaded with great recipes.  For the sake of economy, I had to pass over masterpieces like “Beef and Sausage Pyramids,”  “Liver Fantastique,” and “Bologna Pancake Stacks,” but finally narrowed it down to this mid-century classic.

So when you land-locked ladies of the suburban midwest feel the tug of something warm and exotic in the dead of winter, it’s probably not your husband.  Heed the siren call of California: make this casserole for your family and imagine yourself on a sunny day with the top down, cruising the Arroyo Parkway as you inhale the scent of freedom and glamor (leaded gasoline exhaust).  Cheers!



8 ounces dried beef

1 cup diced celery

1 cup diced onion or reconstituted instant minced onion (use the second option for authenticity, I say)

2 tablespoons lard

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup grated American Cheese

1 can (4 1/2 ounces) chopped ripe olives

4 ounces wide egg noodles, cooked, seasoned and drained

1/3 cup coarse bread crumbs, toasted

1 tablespoon melted butter

Cooking meat is a snap thanks to the helpful Meat Board elves!


Cut dried beef in pieces, if desired.  Cook celery and onion in lard until tender.  Stir in flour.  Add milk and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened.  Add pepper.  Remove sauce from heat.  Add grated cheese and stir until it is melted.  Add dried beef and ripe olives.  Combine noodles with dried beef mixture and pour into greased 2-quart casserole.  Mix toasted crumbs and butter and sprinkle over meat mixture.  Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for 30 minutes.  6 servings.


2 thoughts on “California Casserole

  1. II enjoyed this entry very much. Looking through old cookbooks provides a good insight into the past. I’ve noticed, too, that lard was always used in baking cakes. I don’t see this anymore although I do remember seeing Crisco used in cake recipes as late as the 1980s.

    I’m going to add you to my blogroll at my blog Confessions of a Material Girl.

    I love getting lost in vintage magazines, films and books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s