Tuna Casserole and Chili Soup: Remembering My Grandma
Like most folks, I have many fond memories of being in my grandma’s kitchen. While most people might remember family recipes, holiday dishes, or sweet treats, I think by the time I came around, or when I came around, my Grandma had tired of cooking elaborate meals, raising nine kids on a working farm will do that to you. Instead, my memories are of my Grandma’s tuna casserole* and chili soup** – the two things she made without fail when I was in town.
I grew up about 700 miles away from my Grandma’s home in Markesan, WI. Though there were no spontaneous dinners or Sunday afternoon drop ins, throughout my childhood and adolescence I spent most of the summer and the Christmas – New Year holidays with her. After the 10 and a 1/2 hour drive from Memphis up to Markesan, my dad and I would arrive at my Grandma’s house greeted by either tuna casserole or chili soup. They weren’t fancy, and as my Grandma aged into her late 80s and early 90s, not very flavorful, but they were a food-form of her love and a hearty welcome home.
Whether casserole or soup, the side was saltine crackers or white bread with butter and a glass of milk, pairings that reflected Wisconsin farm life. Much like the change in landscape from city buildings to farmland rolling past my passenger side window, these meals ushered me into a new state with a different pace of life and way of relating to the world. Doors remained unlocked whether you were home or not, shops seemed to close as the sun went down, and there was not a single traffic light in this town with a population about the same size as my high school. June Dairy Days, an ode to the dairy farms and dairy farmers, meant tractor pulls, hay rides, and chicken BBQ. And, whether you were at church, the local diner, or one of the brat fry fundraisers, there was always someone who knew who you were (and you were likely related to them some kind of way).
Visiting my Grandma transported me to an alternate world, one that made me wonder what it would have been like if I had grown up in the farmlands of Wisconsin instead of a city in the South. And, though the lives of my Grandma and I were worlds apart, she was always a supportive force, even when she did not quite understand my lived experiences. She was fiercely protective and fiercely opinionated, qualities that served her well as the matriarch of our family and that hinted at the young woman she must have been as a Corporal in the U.S. Army Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Though not biologically related, nurture is a mf, and I, too, find myself fiercely protective and fiercely opinionated, two points of connection across our distant worlds that I take immense pride in.
A week ago, my Grandma passed away. She was 96. As “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played, she peacefully left her physical form and joined her sister, brothers, husband, and other family members that had passed on before her. Her children surrounded her bedside, ushering her into her final resting place, and as if reassuring her children that she had found peace, a rainbow appeared in the sky.
Love can take many forms. Sometimes it is a promise in the sky. Other times it is tuna casserole and chili soup. At all times, it resides in our memories and in our spirits.
*Tuna casserole is super easy to make and pretty much follows this Campbell’s Crowd Pleasing Tuna Noodle Casserole recipe (pictured above). My Grandma’s did not include the pimento but definitely had the egg noodles.
**For chili soup, check out this Midwestern Chili Soup recipe.