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“What’s that crunch?”

By Kaitlyn Yarborough
August 11, 2020
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Old School Squash Casserole
Credit: Greg DuPree

In any family, there are certain standout dishes that a cousin, uncle, or grandmother has unspoken dibs on and that can often become synonymous with a specific family holiday celebration. In our family, Easter just isn’t right without my aunt showing up with an unprovoked baking dish of Lime Delight Jell-O salad, Christmas morning doesn’t feel the same without my dad getting in the kitchen to make his famous sausage balls, and there is no Thanksgiving lunch without my grandmother’s specially requested squash casserole that has beaten out all other variations that deigned to arrive at the feast. They sit cold and largely untouched, while hers is scraped clean. 

Each year, we host a Thanksgiving celebration that sees both sides of the family, which means there are often repeat offenders of favorite casseroles like green bean and cornbread dressing—you know, lest there be panic that we’d run out of anything on the sideboard. But no one dares to bring an extra squash casserole, because the beloved Southern dish has my grandmother’s name all over it and people begin asking for it come October. 

The trick to my grandmother’s special squash casserole is nothing fancy. There are no expensive cheeses, homemade cream of soup, or double-toasted crackers on top—just one added ingredient that gives a classic recipe a little something extra. For some, squash casserole can tend to seem a little bit base in texture. Creamy on creamy on creamy, barring a few crushed Ritz crackers. To combat the monotony, my grandmother pulls out her secret ingredient: an unassuming can of water chestnuts.

Whenever a new guest or family member tries the squash casserole—that looks completely run-of-the-mill by initial appearance alone—he or she immediately asks, “What gives it that crunch?” Between every creamy, cheesy, fresh squash-filled bite, there are whole water chestnuts to break up the similarly textured components and give the overall dish an added crunch that doesn’t affect the traditional taste that we all know and love (water chestnuts are as subtle in flavor as it gets). She’ll whip out her easy recipe, which is totally made-up and not measured at all, for holidays and casual family dinners alike. You can, too. 

No matter the recipe you like to use, a drained can of water chestnuts (chopped or whole) can be added to the filling before baking, and you can show up with a new version of your squash casserole that people start asking about, again and again. May we suggest starting with our Old-School Squash Casserole and getting crunch with it? 

WATCH: Old-School Squash Casserole

Every heirloom family recipe has a secret ingredient, whether it’s a packet of gelatin or can of water chestnuts. Get ready to wow the crowd.