Fall in New England may just be the perfect place to be this time of year. The colorful patchwork of changing foliage blanketing hills and valleys is a feast for the eyes! Leaf peeping is just one way to celebrate this magical season. Maybe making apple crisp after a day at a local orchard is your ritual. Or perhaps the pop-up fairs and festivals are favorites. An afternoon at the pumpkin patch picking up mums for the porch while my kids get lost in the corn mazes and hop on hayrides has to be one of my favorite memories of this time of year.
The Connecticut Wine Trail and its tasting events are a big draw, while farm-to table dinners by the area’s award-winning restaurant groups are a great date night. How about trying a new way of ushering in fall? I propose an evening of Caftans and Casseroles. A chance to escape a waist band for a night while devouring a potluck of deliciousness with your besties surrounded by fall’s beauty.
The History of the Caftan
Caftans, with Mesopotamian origins, were garments originally worn by men. They were often belted and full-length; they were as functional as they were comfortable, especially in hot humid climates. Eventually women came onto the caftan scene after discovering how practical (and stylish) they could be. Now you can find them everywhere from less than $20 on Amazon to hundreds of dollars in high-end boutiques. There is something for everyone in every color and pattern. Some channel a market shopping trip in Marrakesh for their preferred caftan vibe, while others pay homage to a South of France flair. Comfort, beauty and temperature control—what’s not to love? In fall, wear them with ¾-length sleeves and fall color palettes.
The History of the Casserole
There are a few schools of thought on how this dish came to be. According to Wikipedia, in 1866, Elmire Jolicoeur, a French-Canadian immigrant, invented an early version of the casserole in New Hampshire. There are also historic references to casseroles as communal pots meant to feed large numbers of people. Some of the first recipes used ingredients like pasta sheets cooked in water, then layered with grated cheese and spices. The Library of Congress has a drawing of a “macaroni machine” Thomas Jefferson drew after bringing one home with him from Italy in 1787. His daughter, Mary, created a dish using pasta and parmesan cooked casserole-style that was served at the White House in 1802; she eventually shared it in her “The Virginia Housewife” cookbook in 1824. Decades later, casseroles began to diversify, influenced by the cultures of immigrants coming to the America to live in the New World. Because of their relatively low cost, versatility, and the fact that they were quick and easy to make, the dish thrived through both World Wars and The Depression in the 1930s. When oven-safe cookware became readily available in the 1950s and canned foods were abundant, baking casseroles became a standard way to feed families.
Vintage Comfort Food
As a child of the 1970s, casserole dinners were a regular way of life. If you stayed for supper at someone’s house, it wasn’t “if” a casserole would be served, it was “which one.” Eating this way made sense for families, mine included as a crew of six. My mum, Judi, could efficiently feed us all with a one-dish meal that she could make quickly after chauffeuring us to lessons and practices. They could be made the night before and baked once we got home. Mum changed things up by using different meats, noodles, cheeses, sauces and veggies. Each casserole was hearty and delicious; no one left the table hungry. My favorite was one called “Chinese Noodle Casserole,” featuring soy sauce, cream of mushroom soup, celery, onions, ground beef and chow mien noodles. My husband’s family grew up in Litchfield County where my mother-in-law’s go-to was “Chicken Divan.” Diane still makes it for us today; it’s so good that we’ve renamed it “Chicken Diane.”
The Here and Now
Why not use your new caftan and casserole fun facts, and throw a fall soiree of your own? Keep it simple and invite friends who might enjoy an evening of breezy clothing and good food under candlelight. Or elevate your evening by setting up a table outside under a string of market lights with fresh fall décor plucked from the yard as your centerpiece. To complement the bright colors and pattern clutter of the variety of caftans, it’s fun to use mismatched vintage dishes and glassware to make the table a mix of fun and function. A screened-in porch is another great option since the dinner party can go on whether the forecast is for rain or shine. You could make a real event out of the evening and have a progressive approach with activities planned throughout the night. Create a fall-themed drink and serve it with a charcuterie board to start, followed by a potluck casserole dinner. Wind things down with a fire pit or bonfire enjoying dessert or an after-dinner drink.
See My Party on TV
You are invited to my Caftans and Casserole party! It’s airing on the fall episode of “At Home with Kerri-Lee” on both WFSB and WTNH. There are some fun surprises I had for my guests! You can also stream the show anytime at athomeklm.com. Try the recipes posted on the site from my party guests, my Mum’s “Chinese Noodle Casserole” or my mother-in-law’s “Chicken Diane.” Submit some of your favorites and I’ll let you know how they come out. I hope you have a lot of fun with this. Maybe it will be a new tradition for you this time of year. Just another thing we can all love about autumn in New England.