One taste and Glodine Davis’s life was transformed. She had grown up in Covington, Tennessee, with a broccoli bias. She even married a man, Ralph Davis, who shared her childhood distaste for the cruciferous vegetable. But after the first spoonful of her family’s broccoli casserole, she was a changed person.
“Oh, my goodness,” she remembers saying. “I’ve got to have that recipe.”
Dozens of people have said likewise over the years - so many, in fact, that Glodine now packs copies of her broccoli casserole recipe into her pocketbook anytime she brings the dish to a homecoming at Johnson City’s Thankful Baptist Church, to a working lunch at Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, or to a meeting of the local NAACP chapter, such as the one I attended in December of 2003, when I, too, fell under her casserole spell.
Glodine’s broccoli casserole proffers a perfect combination: a green vegetable for the righteous, a whole stick of butter for the rowdy.
Broccoli casseroles in the South run a caloric gamut, with cream of mushroom soup the most common binding agent. In Treasury of Tennessee Treats, first published in 1957 by the Woman’s Society of Christian Service at Keith Memorial Church in Athens, Tennessee, my aunt deviated by adding cream of celery and became downright revolutionary for her day by folding in water chestnuts. The recipe from Mrs. Joe T. Frye Jr., in that same book, calls for the complete pulverizing of the cooked broccoli with a potato masher, so that any hint of what we’d call dietary fiber today was forgotten.
In The Memphis Cook Book, published by that city’s Junior League in 1964, Mrs. George S. Miles gussied up her recipe with separated eggs and called it a soufflé. Main Street, a 1980 cookbook from the Youth Builders in Greeneville, Tennessee, offers eleven different broccoli casserole variants, six of them bound with cream of mushroom soup. Three include Cheez Whiz, one Velveeta. Mary Helen McGruder submitted two versions, a soufflé and a “supreme,” the latter containing a cup of sour cream.
Broccoli casserole creation, it seems, involves countless ways to balance the healthy properties of the vegetable with rich, indulgent dairy products.
But all those accoutrements never won over Ralph Davis. When he comes home and detects broccoli, he knows a covered dish dinner is in the offing somewhere.
Although Glodine remembers that first taste, she doesn’t recall whether the recipe was handed down from an aunt in Covington or from her grandmother, Irene Murphy, who lived from 1900 to 1992. Either way, the casserole has traversed the three grand divisions of the state, from Covington in West Tennessee, to the student days of Glodine and Ralph at Austin Peay State University in the Middle Tennessee city of Clarksville, and on to East Tennessee, where the Davises now make their home.
Enriched by that whole stick of butter, Glodine’s broccoli casserole stays moist through repeated reheatings and remains flavorful and appetizing at room temperature. The topping is a common mid-20th-century touch: crushed, buttery crackers.
“It’s almost a meal in itself, and you can mix it in the same bowl you bake it in,” she tells me, as she knifes off squares of margarine for the casserole in her well-appointed Jonesborough kitchen, surrounded by a stack of recipes collected from family and friends over the years. She uses butter and margarine interchangeably in the broccoli casserole—whatever she has at hand, she explains.
To be so well-known for a recipe is ironic for Glodine. Her grandmother Murphy never used them. When Glodine moved away from Covington, she called her grandmother often, seeking kitchen guidance—pleading that pinches and smidgeons be translated into fractions of teaspoons.
“She had barbecued or smothered chicken every Sunday for dinner,” Glodine remembers. “She made the best blackberry cobbler and also a yellow cake she’d bake in an iron skillet. After the cake was done, you’d cut it up like you would cornbread, split it open, put butter in the middle, and pour a vanilla-flavored sauce, with the consistency of soft ice cream, over the top.”
Irene Murphy called the cake “puddin’,” and the family’s love for it has been handed down to Ralph and Glodine’s daughter Ralonda, along with a passion for her great-grandmother’s meringue-topped chocolate pie.
“Everything my grandmother made, it seemed like it took all day,” Glodine recalls. “She cooked everything very slowly. And we all ate supper together, at the same time.”
The Davises are still divided over the taste of broccoli, but they’re united in their amazement over the goodwill that Glodine’s buttery, cheesy, West Tennessee broccoli casserole has created.
Glodine Davis’ Broccoli Casserole
2 boxes frozen chopped broccoli (Fred’s note: I usually use fresh—two heads, cut into florets, and boiled for about five minutes.)
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
1 small onion, chopped
1 stick butter or margarine, cut into thin slices
2 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese
Crushed Ritz or Town House crackers for topping
Cook and drain broccoli. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Sprinkle crushed cracker crumbs on top and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour, until bubbly.
Fred Sauceman’s latest book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”