Editor’s note: Since writer Emily Nunn trash talked tuna noodle casserole in “The Comfort Food Myth,” back in July, we’re still getting notes of outrage from people — including comedian and author Samantha Irby, who also happens to be a prolific home cook, although she’d deny it until the end of time. She has something to say about it. — Melissa McCart
The thing about being black and growing up in the Midwest is that not only do you eat all the stereotypical black foods — your collards, your banana pudding, your cornbread, your catfish — but you also are well-versed in the various delicacies of flyover country — the goulashes, the hot dishes, the pasties, the brats — that no one expects you to know about, let alone eat. Neither of my parents was from the Midwest, but they moved early and assimilated quickly, raising my sisters and me on a steady diet of hash brown casserole, corn pudding, shepherd’s pie, and revolting layered salads.
I don’t know the actual origin of tuna casserole and I refuse to look it up, so I’m just gonna go ahead and assume it was conceived of by a tired mom named Nancy or Gwen who loved tuna and mushrooms and peas and was like, “Wait, should I throw these all together in a dish and serve it to my ungrateful family?” and thus the tastiest, most comforting dish ever conceived was born. Here is how I, a true Illinoisan, make mine.
Tuna Noodle Casserole
For the mushroom sauce
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup finely diced button or crimini mushrooms
2 tablespoons minced shallots (or mild onion)
3 tablespoons flour
1 ¼ cup milk (whole is best)
Pinch of dried thyme
Salt and pepper
Some people are going to let you get away with dumping a can of cream of mushroom soup in it and calling it a sauce, and honestly? That’s fucking fine. YOU’VE HAD A LONG DAY. But, if you’re feeling ambitious or you just want to spend the whole night bragging that you made your own sauce, this is what you’ll need to make an easy one.
For the casserole
8 ounces (half a bag. Why doesn’t anyone ever just say “half a goddamn bag?” Are you really expecting me to measure dry pasta ounces?!) wide egg noodles
10 ounces (2 cans) solid white albacore tuna, drained
1 cup frozen peas (if you shell a single pea for this recipe, you’re a fed)
½ cup grated cheddar cheese
½ cup dried breadcrumbs
First you need to call your mama, ask her to leave the old Corningware baking dish she stole from your grandma on her front steps, then swing by there on your way home from the grocery store and pick it up because tuna casserole just doesn’t taste right unless it’s from a weird, faded glass dish that only old people care about.
My mom is dead and chose to be buried in her treasured 9-by-13 Pyrex baking dish, so I was stuck scouring all the Salvation Armies in a 20-mile radius trying to find an authentic Corelle to make my casseroles in. I found nothing, so I just use this cheap glass pan I got at Target, like a normal person.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. I know this process involves dirtying another pot that you’ll have to scrub out later, and if it truly is painful to you, don’t. Get a can of cream of mushroom and use that instead. I love it when shit is easy! But this isn’t that hard, and I promise you will feel like a hardy Midwesterner as you do it. I’m not kidding — the minute you start slicing the mushrooms your hands will develop a thick callus that is impenetrable by icy winds and you’ll start saying “Ope!” when you bump into shit.
OK, add the chopped mushrooms and shallots, and cook until the shallots are translucent (about 5 minutes), stirring often. Turn the heat down to medium-low, then sprinkle the flour over the sautéed mushrooms and shallots, stirring to coat. Keep stirring and cooking for a few minutes, until the roux becomes fragrant. Then pat yourself on your strong, upstanding, hardworking back for making a roux.
Turn off the heat and slowly pour in the milk, stirring forcefully enough to smooth out any lumps. I don’t ever feel like anything I make is as smooth as it would be if a machine in a factory had made it. But luckily this is gonna get all mixed up with other shit and it won’t matter as much as if you’d fucked up, say, gravy. Another staple of a Midwestern diet: I don’t make gravy. There’s always either way too much or way too little, and if yours turns out lumpy, which it inevitably will, everyone at the table will look at you with unbridled disdain as they ignore the congealing mess in your gravy boat, silently chewing their dry turkey. Again, no need to worry about that here, since you’re immediately gonna dump tuna and peas in it. Turn the burner back on to medium-low, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Run out and tip a cow. Add the thyme and season with salt and pepper.
While you’re making the sauce — if you have the mental and emotional bandwidth to do more than one thing at a time — boil the noodles in salted water according to the package directions. Except not, because I like to take them out a little earlier than they suggest so the casserole isn’t all loose and watery, which is definitely a technical culinary term. Drain the noodles and really shake the water out, because even though a casserole is wet, you don’t want it to get wetter. That sounds disgusting. This is disgusting! But also, delicious? I don’t make the rules!
This is usually about the point in the meal construction where I wish I was already eating and resent the fact that there is more left to do, despite everything being already cooked and edible. If you live alone and have no standards you could just kind of dump everything in a bowl and eat it, and I wouldn’t be mad at you. Because I’m a monster, I would probably put a bite of each component in my mouth and squash them all together between my teeth while congratulating myself on being a genius. But that’s sad, and not technically a casserole, so let’s finish our assembly.
Crumble the tuna into the pot with the noodles, then pour in the rinsed-off peas, then add in finished sauce, and stir to thoroughly combine. Scrape everything into the buttered casserole dish and top first with the cheese, then with the bread crumbs.
How to make delicious breadcrumbs, because in the heartland we still eat bread.
Lay a few slices of fresh bread on a cookie sheet.
Stick them in a 300-degree oven for 15 minutes to dry them out.
Let ’em cool.
Tear the bread into chunks and blitz those chunks in a processor.
No food processor? Put them in a zipper-lock bag and scrunch them up until they’re your desired consistency; use a rolling pin if you’re fancy.
This isn’t entirely necessary but you should do it: Put the crumbs in a bowl, pour some melted butter on them, stir to coat, thank me later.
Bake the whole mess until the cheese is melted, the breadcrumbs are browned, and the sauce is delightfully bubbly. I’m gonna say 15 minutes, but you gotta just check it to make sure. Not obsessively, because it’s pretty hard to screw this up, but glance in there every once in a while.
Samantha Irby wrote a book called “Meaty.”