King Ranch Casserole is not a pretty dish. A steaming mass of melted porridge, the classic ingredients – boiled chicken, grated cheese, tortilla chips and a can of cream of mushroom and cream of chicken – make it a study in beige and yellow. It’s not exciting either: even with the Ro-Tel tomatoes and green peppers required, the flavor is decidedly bland, a quality Texans claim to hate in their kitchen. The dish is, in fact, the object of a certain contempt: “Never, never, never,Says caterer Tilford Collins, who serves some of South Texas’ oldest families. Texan food historian Mary Faulk Koock is only slightly more charitable. “I imagine that could be made acceptable,” is about all she has to say on the subject.
Yet the King Ranch casserole – or King Ranch Chicken, as it’s often called – has endured. It’s the clubwoman’s contribution to Texas cuisine, a staple of society’s women’s cookbooks from Fort Worth to McAllen, where the Junior League’s The Pinata presents a variation as “a great way to enjoy leftover Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey”. The casserole’s fame has spread to cookbooks in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kansas, and the dish can be purchased frozen at Randall’s supermarkets in Houston and at HEB in Alamo Heights. The King Ranch casserole is not only the most in-demand dish at the 1886 Room, Austin’s premier women’s lunch spot, but it’s also popular in the trendy Brazos neighborhood on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, where needy singles can find it. require at the end of particularly arduous work weeks. “It’s mom food,” says Nancy Beckham, owner of Brazos, who ate the dish as a child in South and West Texas in the 1950s. Forget the stripped-down sophistication of nouvelle cuisine, the assertion of true Mexican cuisine. The secret to King Ranch casserole is that it’s boring. In today’s complex culinary lexicon, the dish fits perfectly into the comfort food category.
No one seems to know who invented it. The casserole may have come from the King Ranch, but the descendants of Captain Richard King prefer to brag about their beef and game dishes. “A bit strange, a King Ranch casserole dish made with chicken,” notes Martín Clement, the ranch’s public relations manager. Dick Kleberg’s widow Mary Lewis Kleberg admits her heart sinks whenever a well-meaning hostess prepares it in her honor. Most likely, the dish takes its name from an enterprising hostess in South Texas or a cook at the King Ranch whose preference for poultry doomed it to oblivion.
Still, the general origins of the King Ranch casserole are easy to discern. He certainly owes a deep debt to Chilaquiles, which also contain chicken, cheese, tomatoes, tortilla chips and chili peppers, the staples that campesinos often combined to stretch a meal in half while still retaining some semblance of nutrition. But the dish owes just as much to post-war cooking, when casseroles made with canned soups were the pinnacle of space-age cooking. Because they could be prepared quickly and frozen for later use, the casseroles set the hostess free. “The perfect starter for a minimum of time in the kitchen for the hostess,” notes the McAllen Junior League cookbook. The recipe has caught on from one women’s club to another, networking in its most basic form. “It was one of those recipes that everyone was trying to get,” recalls Ms. Joe Gardner of Corpus Christi.
If the women of the fifties loved the recipe because it freed them from home cooking, their children love it because it brings them back. They have of course adapted it to their taste: trendy cooks are now substituting flour tortillas for corn, while the craziest for convenience use Doritos. The purists correct the recipe with sour cream, a return to Mexican authenticity. Graham Catering of Houston has developed a low salt version. Even that stronghold of Junior Leaguedom, San Antonio’s Bright Shawl Dining Room, has changed over time. Chef Mark Green followed the lead of late Dallas foodie guru Helen Corbitt by ditching canned soups; he now adds his own “roux” of milk, grated cheese, garlic and sliced mushrooms. “It sells well,” he says. “It goes quickly.”
Even with modernization, the dish still tastes the same as before: slightly salty, slightly chewy, slightly spicy, slightly fatty. Yes, it misses the challenge of a T-bone or a bowl of spicy red – the King Ranch casserole is calm, it doesn’t mean to offend. What better dish to end the year and face the one to come?