Texas Primer: King Ranch Casserole

Bland, yes, but there when you need it. The clubwoman’s contribution to Texas cuisine.
Texas Primer: King Ranch Casserole
Photograph by Tom Ryan

King Ranch Casserole is not a pretty dish. A steaming mass of melted mush, the classic ingredients—boiled chicken, grated cheese, tortilla chips, and one can each cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup—make it a study in beige and yellow. Nor is it at all exciting: Even with the requisite Ro-Tel tomatoes and green chiles, the flavor is resolutely bland, a quality Texans claim to abhor in their cooking. The dish is, in fact, the subject of some scorn: “Never, never, never,” says caterer Tilford Collins, who serves some of South Texas’ oldest families. Texas food historian Mary Faulk Koock is only slightly more charitable. “I imagine it could be made palatable,” is about all she has to say on the subject.

Still, King Ranch casserole—or King Ranch chicken, as it is often called—has endured. It is the clubwoman’s contribution to Texas cuisine, a staple of society ladies’ cookbooks from Fort Worth to McAllen, where the Junior League’s La Piñata touts a variation as a “great way to enjoy that leftover Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey.” The casserole’s fame has spread to cookbooks in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kansas, and the dish can be purchased frozen from Randall’s supermarkets in Houston and from H.E.B. in Alamo Heights. Not only is King Ranch casserole the most requested dish at the 1886 Room, Austin’s premier ladies’ lunch spot, but it is also popular at trendy Brazos on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, where needy singles demand it at the end of particularly punishing work weeks. “It’s Mom food,” says Brazos owner

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