Essay

The Unlikely Star of My Family's Thanksgiving Table

Aunt Anne didn't invent broccoli cheese rice casserole. But she certainly perfected it.

by:
November 15, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Kate Buckens. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

It’s hard to remember life before broccoli cheese rice casserole. Or, B.B.C.R.C.E. (Before Broccoli Cheese Rice Casserole Era).

What did the Kim clan have to look forward to every Thanksgiving before the cheesy family-favorite side dish entered our lives? Stuffing, maybe. Green bean casserole. Macaroni and cheese. Ham in cola, a quirky recipe from Nigella Lawson that she picked up from the American South.

Certainly nothing from the Korean palate, neither rice nor kimchi on the table. This was the one day of the year when the adults sat back and the kids cooked American food. Our Thanksgivings were copied and pasted from the magazines and Food Network shows we binged as the children of immigrants in suburban Georgia.

These early dinners were fine, but when my cousin Becky brought over that cheesy casserole dish—still hot and wrapped in tinfoil—one fateful Thanksgiving years ago, our lives were forever changed.

In a group text recently, I asked my cousins if they knew where the recipe even came from.

“Not sure,” my brother Kevin wrote, “but it's the first time I ever had rice and cheese together.”

“Pretty sure Aunt Anne learned it from the side of a Campbell’s soup can,” Becky said, to all of our surprise.

I felt a little cheated. I thought, surely my family’s favorite heirloom Thanksgiving dish would have a better origin story. Though, now that I think of it, the recipe that Aunt Anne taught Becky calls for a can of cream of chicken soup (and we’ve only ever used Campbell’s). So why did I think, after all these years, that her recipe was such a treasured family heirloom?

Our Thanksgivings were copied and pasted from the magazines and Food Network shows we binged as the children of immigrants in suburban Georgia.

Maybe, as Alex Mayyasi reported for Gastro Obscura last February, people “love passing recipes off as their own.”

I guess a part of me wanted the narrative to be a more classic one: A group of Korean brothers and sisters immigrate to Atlanta in the 1980s and learn about Thanksgiving slowly through their friends at church and daycare and ceramics class. One aunt tastes the dish at her neighbor’s house, then asks for the recipe, and cooks it for her Korean family. And the rest is history.

Or maybe I’m just trying to make the story sound prettier than it is.

Realistically, Aunt Anne probably discovered it while making some slow-cooker dinner with cream of chicken soup, and she saved the can to try the casserole later.

Thankfully she did, because the one thing our turkey dinners had been missing B.B.C.R.C.E. was rice. Thanksgiving was the one day a year we didn’t have plain white rice on our table, which was always a point of contention for the adults (for whom a meal is never complete without the staple starch).

Because, the truth of the matter is: Short-grain white rice is the heart of the Korean table. In a way, Aunt Anne's cheesy casserole serves as a special stand-in—an annual surrogate, if you will—for that bowl of rice on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

Maybe it’s okay, then, that Anne's recipe started from the side of a can. Key word: started. The broccoli rice casserole recipe on Campbell’s site doesn’t include her first important step of sautéing onions and cubes of bread in butter. Also, she uses fluorescent-orange Velveeta (not jarred cheese sauce), frozen broccoli florets (not chopped broccoli), and leftover short-grain Korean white rice (not long-grain). In short, Aunt Anne’s recipe may have germinated from the can, but it grew into a beautiful beast of its own based on the ingredients she preferred.

And maybe what makes broccoli cheese rice casserole so special is not where it came from, but what happened to it after it entered our lives: how we always doubled it because it made for the best leftovers; how we built our Thanksgivings over the years around that one very filling, cheesy rice dish; and how, years later, when we atomized and moved away from home, we all still made it at our respective Friendsgivings all over the country.

Finally, maybe it was inevitable that I’ve tweaked my version over the years here in New York. For instance, I like to spread it out on a sheet pan because the crusty corners and sides of Aunt Anne’s casserole were my favorite bits. I also call for sharp cheddar instead of Velveeta (as much as I love the nostalgia factor of the latter), sour cream and milk instead of canned cream of chicken soup, and a crunchy panko topping for added texture.

My broccoli cheese rice casserole has more rice, as well, because for me that’s the best part. I guess I take after the adults.

Does your family cook something like this for Thanksgiving? Let us know in the comments below.
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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

22 Comments

Shane L. November 23, 2019
Gonna bring this as one of my dishes this year. Don't be mad though, cuz I'm gonna veganize it lol.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 25, 2019
Let me know how it goes! Happy Thanksgiving, Shane!
 
Shane L. November 25, 2019
Happy Thanksgiving to you, Eric 🥂 Are you going to be with your family in Georgia?
I’ll definitely let you know.
 
Suzie W. November 17, 2019
I'm so glad that your tweaking of this recipe included replacing the cream of chicken soup with sour cream and milk, making it vegetarian. I'm Chinese and my vegetarian son is half Korean so we are all about the rice, but we will have to see about the cheese. I think I'd better make a test batch before the big day, which will include a 🐔 instead of a 🦃. Thank you for a really nice article and recipe that I hope to include every Thanksgiving!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 17, 2019
The cheese and rice was a new combination for my family, too. Though admittedly I'd been eating broccoli cheddar Hot Pockets with a bowl of white rice after school for many years...
 
Suzie W. November 27, 2019
Hi Eric! So I made a test batch today, and it was such a huge hit that there are no leftovers! We didn't mind the cheese at all and thought the ingredients amounts were perfect. Instead of sour cream, I used cream of mushroom soup to keep it vegetarian for my son. Thank you for the terrific recipe and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
 
Carlos C. November 15, 2019
What a great piece, Eric. You really highlight some of the "grownups vs. kids" issues that face immigrant families. In my experiences, a lot of immigrant parents actually see the real purpose of Thanksgiving: a time to have a great big feast featuring your favorite foods. But the desire to assimilate by participating in what a professor pointed out is the only true American holiday that isn't a political festivity (i.e. July 4th) is sometimes too irresistible. I remember friends recounting the big arguments in their households - the parents wanted roast pork and rice and beans; the kids insisted that you CANNOT have that on Thanksgiving (to be fair, most families would be having that on Christmas, anyway). I remember a lot of immigrant Latin American families had this understanding that what made Thanksgiving was the turkey. You didn't have to eat it, but you had to cook it. So a roasted turkey would be the decorative centerpiece while everyone feasted on traditional foods from the the "old country." Other families would be baffled at the American recipes they found that only called for salt and pepper (the way my stepmother used to season all the Thanksgiving food), and make the right decision to override those instructions by adding sour orange juice, garlic, oregano, cilantro, achiote, etc.

I don't celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact, I hate the holiday. For me, Thanksgiving has always been a time for copious amounts of terrible food that is ill-suited to my local climate along with generous helpings of xenophobia and exclusionary notions of what it means to be American. However, if Thanksgiving included this rice casserole, I just may have liked it more.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 15, 2019
Carlos, my friend, I loved reading about your perspective on this as another child of immigrants. This is so good: "You didn't have to eat it, but you had to cook it." At these early dinners, actually, we used to roast chickens instead because we preferred them. Only in very recent years have I begun to appreciate turkey's gaminess, especially when you make gravy out of its stock. But for so long I resisted it too because it just wasn't ever that good (at least when my mom made it—sorry, Mom).
 
Shane L. November 16, 2019
Carlos,
While I agree with most of what you’re saying here, I’m perplexed with “generous helpings of xenophobia”.
I’m asking humbly, from a place of curiosity and naïveté, what do you mean? Please educate me?
 
sexyLAMBCHOPx November 16, 2019
I interpret the statement, “generous helpings of xenophobia” about the current political issue(s) of immigration under the current administration (the orange man). Xenophobia means the fear of immigrants, so a debate or conversation with Thanksgiving guests (friends & family) who have ignorant, racist, xenophobic opinions.
 
Carlos C. November 18, 2019
Oh. I have just been to too many Thanksgiving dinners where anything that had any ties to immigrants was seen as un-American and thus had no place on the Thanksgiving table. My stepmother got angry with an elderly Cuban woman for bringing a flan toThanksgiving, equating it with flag burning. I've had other instances where even garlic, herbs, and other seasonings were seen as un-American and therefore banned from Thanksgiving preparations. Latino friends even argued with their parents that they cannot season their foods with garlic, oregano, and sazón because that is not Thanksgiving. It just turns into this whole mess of people making uneducated assumptions of what is and is not American and behaving as if green bean casserole is written into the US constitution. People like me feel left out and forced to choke down just plain bad food for the sake of "being American." I just rather skip it .
 
Shane L. November 23, 2019
Thank you for your reply Carlos,
I'm sorry for your crappy Thanksgiving experiences. I guess I've been lucky, my family/friend experiences around Thanksgiving have never entered the what is American or un-American territory. As far as I can remember, my mother has never even made green bean casserole!, there is plenty of garlic, and it has been our goal to bring some new things to the table every year. The goal, is to enjoy each other's company, eat some tasty dishes, and play a little Scrabble.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 25, 2019
I love that you play Scrabble with your family on Thanksgiving. We play a game called: drink as much as possible.
 
Shane L. November 25, 2019
Oh yeah? I know that game too 😂
 
Margot November 15, 2019
This story reminds me of a Thanksgiving years ago when I was making pies for a group Thanksgiving in Brooklyn. My family wasn't a pumpkin pie family so I asked my friend who was hosting for a recipe. She told me her grandmother had a wonderful pumpkin pie recipe. She called her grandmother and to quote her grandmother she said "it's on the back of the can" Sometimes the best recipes are on the back of the can!
 
AntoniaJames November 15, 2019
There are so many great recipes on the backs of cans, boxes and other packages. As my mother explained to me when I was quite young, the food companies want you to buy more of their product, and to reach for their brand regularly. A time-honored way of doing that is to provide recipes that are well-tested, producing perfect results every time. They therefore have first-rate test kitchens whose only job is to create excellent recipes that taste delicious and deliver as promised, which in turns promotes increased sales. Margot, it sounds like your friend's grandmother figured that out, too! ;o)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 15, 2019
Ha! Well, that pie recipe IS dang good. Evidenced in the comments section here: https://food52.com/blog/24727-why-libbys-changed-pumpkin-pie-recipe
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 15, 2019
AJ,

Well said. Such a good point and reminds me of the story behind green bean casserole (rest in peace): https://www.npr.org/2018/11/22/670313834/remembering-dorcas-reilly-inventor-of-the-classic-green-bean-casserole

On another note, love seeing you so active on here again. I think we're kindred spirits: Our powers are at their strongest around Thanksgiving. 😈

x
 
Liz D. November 18, 2019
Hahaha! The same thing happened to me: My husband said his Mom's recipe was best, and when I got the written recipe, I looked at the pumpkin can & it was identical!
 
MikNik November 15, 2019
My family has a very similar dish, probably from the same soup can originally. We usually have it Christmas eve--easily my favorite thing on the table. Sheetpanning it is a great idea.
 
AntoniaJames November 15, 2019
MikNik, my immediate reaction was, "This would be perfect for Christmas Eve!" We serve Brunswick Stew (very popular in Mr. Kim's home state) every Christmas Eve, continuing a tradition of my husband's family, whose roots are in Georgia, North Carolina and more recently, Florida. One of my sons and I are not keen on lima beans, or Brunswick Stew generally, so I always serve something else as well. This will be perfect.
;o)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 15, 2019
MikNik, funny how that happens. All of us intertwined by the things we buy at the grocery store. Marketing at its best, I guess.

Mm, Brunswick stew. I hope you both enjoy my version of the casserole. Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for commenting.