You Can't Beat a Junk Food Casserole

I didn’t grow up with a lot of other canned or processed foods because my mom, dad, and immediate grandparents were all incredible cooks. But our potato casserole is strictly a product of the 50s—because if it’s good, it’s good.

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Nov 15 2016, 5:00pm

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2014.

Hash browns are big where I'm from in central Pennsylvania. All of the restaurants that I grew up with serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner—hash browns made their way onto dinner, steak onto breakfast—so crossover was sort of a necessity.

Because hash browns were everywhere, it was natural to make a potato casserole. It's a legendary dish in my house, and it's present at any special occasion. It's a product strictly from the 50s: nothing but canned soups, yellow cheddar, and processed, frozen hash browns. I call it potato casserole because it's easy to mutter, but it's actually called a hash brown casserole.

We're very much in touch with our inner white trash. If it's good, it's good.

I didn't grow up with a lot of other canned or processed foods, though. My mom, dad, and immediate grandparents were all incredible cooks. My grandmother had breast cancer when I was really young, and she was already doing the Paleo diet in the 80s. We would also go to this really healthy vegan restaurant that I loved. I didn't know any better because my parents liked it for its good cooking—pita pizzas, smoothies. Everything smelled of curry.

MAKE IT: Hash Brown Casserole

But we also had our own vices. We come from a very small town, and we're very much in touch with our inner white trash when it comes to junk food, which is where the casserole comes in. If it's good, it's good.

I have no doubt that my parents influenced the way I cook. My mom cooked almost every single night. When I was very young, I loved Brussels sprouts and fresh broccoli because my mom was really good at preparing them. She knew the proper doneness. She would steam these things and season them perfectly.

Food has been very much a center of everything we've ever done. This is a cliché, but if we were at lunch, we'd be talking about what's for dinner. Anytime there was a vacation, food was first and foremost on the agenda. On one of those trips, I was fortunate to get the chance to eat at The French Laundry with them when I was just in college. They deeply loved food, and it was the basis almost everything of what we talked about together.

At home, we always had to eat. There would never be a night where my mom's like, "Oh, I don't want to make something." I wouldn't be in the food world if it wasn't so important to my family.

As for this casserole recipe, I'm not sure of its exact origins—it just started being made. The best thing about this casserole, quite frankly, is that there are cornflakes on top of it. It was so damn good that we were like, OK, this is going to stick with us forever.

My sister and I always requested it any time we would come home from college or work, so it was natural that it went with Thanksgiving. Quite frankly, my mom loved that we requested it because it's got about six ingredients, all mixed up and put into a casserole.

For the last couple of Thanksgivings, however, I've been up in Rhode Island with my wife, so we haven't really gone home. We would invite some of the guys at my restaurant, Birch, who don't usually celebrate Thanksgiving, like our dishwasher. We did our best, and the first year was really great.

Then there was one year when we had over a new set of dishwashers, and they showed up with their friends. Two guys became five guys, and I had no idea who these dudes were. At one point, we're roasting this chicken—we waited until the last minute and forgot to get a turkey—and my house just starts smoking up. I was very drunk at the time, and I had set the oven set too high.

I decided I was never going to invite a bunch of people to my house and be a ding-dong and not have some sort of fucking game plan again.

As my place was filling up with smoke, it suddenly became this Wes Anderson-style, extremely uncomfortable silent moment. I don't know these guys, and they don't know any English, and my Spanish fails at best. So these guys start talking, and I know they're talking shit about me because I'm making my entire house smoke up, and it's just quiet.

The pain of that pure, uncomfortable silence rattled me. It was worse than having a really bad night in the kitchen in the restaurant. It was just a moment of being drunk and having a lot of dudes judging me. After that, I decided I was never going to invite a bunch of people to my house and be a ding-dong and not have some sort of fucking game plan again.

That's why the hash brown casserole makes sense for Thanksgiving—you barely need a game plan, and it's stress-free. It's six ingredients of total comfort, and it's just so damn good.