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Five Spice Casserole - Don't Judge!

This week I spent several days with good friends in Nashville, Tennessee. They're managing every day to raise an almost two-year-old, run a business and put a delicious meal on the table, and it made me think of my Five Spice Casserole days when I was taking care of three kids and barely holding it together. Here's an excerpt and a recipe from soon-to-be released Kept: An American Househusband in Paris that I dedicate to Siena and Matt all those parents doing their best.

I step in a pool of urine. Nina has taken off her diaper—again. Her afternoon nap is getting shorter and shorter, and it’s killing me. Cole hands me a dish towel. He’s my five-and-a-half-year-old savior. Envious and impatient, I wait each day for him to come home from kindergarten and speak to me in complete sentences.

“Daddy,” he says. “I think you need a break.”

What an angel. “No. I’m good,” I lie.

“You know, I can tell when you’re not telling the truth.”

Brat. “Are you calling me a—”

“Mama’s home!” he cries, a little too happily for my taste.

Dana breezes in, beaming from a day of stimulating entertainment at the Foreign Service Institute.

“Hey, sweetie pie,” she chirps, “what’s for dinner?”

I will not be resentful. I will not be resentful. I will not be resentful. “Five spice casserole,” I reply in a tone that suggests I know we had five spice casserole last week but that she’d better not say an f-ing word.

Dana mumbles an ambiguous, “Oh.”

Before I can ask, “Is that ‘oh’ as in ‘Oh, no, not that again?’ or ‘oh’ as in ‘Oh, thank you for dinner, sweetheart,’” she makes a tactical retreat to change from her work clothes, which, I should note, are extremely casual since she’s just sitting in six hours of French class every day.

I check the casserole. I might not be a great cook, but I don’t not know how to cook. While I haven’t exactly cooked my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I’ve made a serious dent in the cookbook of the First United Methodist Church of Conroe, Texas, and I showed a Japanese housewife how to make Granny’s chicken and dumplings, which ought to count for something. I am, however, out of practice, having been in India for the last two years, where I needed not cook a single meal. My cooking skills are rusty, to say the least, and on top of relearning how to cook, I’m managing three kids under six. Basically, if a recipe takes more than one dish, it’s too complicated.

As such, this is an interesting dietary phase for our family, one that consists almost entirely of ground beef combined with cans of condensed cream of mushroom soup—that great American béchamel of which the ladies of First United Methodist Church of Conroe make liberal use. I find the FUMC cookbook interesting. The fact that the authors and their presumed audience were so homogenous that they didn’t feel the need to explain much is somehow comforting and disconcerting at the same time. For example, they take for granted their reader knows what food items like Oleo and Accent are, and they often dispense with silly things like measurements and cooking times.

Anyway, for those of you who are tapped out, I have included the recipe for five spice casserole below. Do with it what you will; we won’t judge. The parenthetical notes are mine; the rest is all FUMC.

Five Spice Casserole

Minute Rice (Minute Rice is a brand of so-called “instant rice,” and any brand will do. The ladies didn’t specify how much, so I recommend a cup. You could substitute real rice for this, but you’d have to cook it first, and who’s got the energy for that?)

1 can diced tomatoes (Size of can not specified. Good luck.)

1 can mushroom soup (Meaning: 1 can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Don’t use any other type of mushroom soup, or you’ll be sorry. Also, I have searched the world over and determined these cans only come in one size.)

1 onion (I recommend you chop the onion, though the church ladies were silent on this.)

Cheese (I interpret this to mean you can use either kind of cheese—cheddar or American—and grate it. How much is anybody’s guess.)

1 lb. hamburger (By “hamburger” they mean “ground beef”—not a 1 lb. hamburger.)

Half teaspoon salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, chili powder (The eponymous five spices, if you don’t count salt—which you shouldn’t since the internet says it’s not a spice. All of these are optional, by the way, and can be substituted with anything.)

Preparation: Brown hamburger and onion. (Again, use ground beef, not a hamburger, and you’d better chop that silly onion.) Mix ingredients. (Just do what it says. Throw it all together.) Top with cheese. (Oops. I guess you weren’t supposed to throw in the cheese yet. Whatever. Just grate some more cheese and put on top.) Cook until bubbly (or kids start crying).

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