New Hampshire Firsts: Did This Granite State Woman Invent Casserole?

May 4, 2018

There’s a story out there… a story you’ll find on dozens, maybe hundreds of websites, about the invention of the casserole:

“In 1866, Elmire Jolicoeur, a French Canadian immigrant, invented the precursor of the modern casserole in Berlin, New Hampshire.”

That’s from Wikipedia. If you don’t trust Wikipedia, you can also find this attribution in print, too.

A newspaper in Kentucky references Elmire Jolicoeur in a story about the opening of a new restaurant...that presumably has some casserole on the menu. The Sacramento State Hornet goes so far as to say she invented the egg casserole.

And a piece by Langdon Reid in a Staunton, Virginia, newspaper says: “History tells us that a French Canadian immigrant Elmire Jolicour is credited with inventing the casserole, this wonderful dish of culinary breakthrough, in Berlin, New Hampshire, in 1866.”

He continues, "I'm pretty sure, to date, this is the biggest contribution to the States that New Hampshire has produced!”

Nope. Not by a long shot, Langdon. And we have this series to prove it.

New Hampshire Firsts is an ongoing look at the remarkable achievements, incredible inventions, natural phenomenon, and events of national significance that began in the Granite State. Click here to see the series.

But has history really told us Elmire Jolicoeur invented the casserole? I went to Berlin to find out.

"The rumors have been around for a couple of years now. Don't know where it originated from," says Walter Nadeau, vice president of the Berlin and Coos County Historical Society. "Every once in a while someone will bring it up "Oh, I heard the casserole was invented in Berlin by a woman named Jolicoeur."

Nadeau says they have no records attesting to this invention. But they do have other information about Elmire Jolicoeur.

"She was a very influential lady in Berlin," says Nadeau. 

Born in Quebec in 1844, Jolicoeur came to Berlin to join her husband who had found work in a saw mill after the Civil War. It’s said that she arrived with a bag filled with 10 pounds of flour, 5 pounds of butter, 5 loaves of maple sugar, eggs, tobacco, and cherry wine… all of which, you can imagine, quickly made her a town favorite.

Six months later, the Jolicoeurs moved into their own home. Elmire started a school - the first Catholic school in town - in one room.

Other rooms housed new immigrants. She was always happy to host newcomers until they got settled.

"When other Frenchmen who were here, she got the wives to come down and she let them board with her," describes Nadeau. 

The Brown Bulletin, the newsletter of the paper company that employed most of the town, hailed Elmire as a community leader who “left a comfortable home and loving relatives to stand by her husband through thick and thin, spurred them on, and helped to keep up their courage, for there were many dark hours.”

So where did this story begin? How did Elmire Jolicoeur’s name become historically entwined with casserole?

The Wikipedia entry crediting Elmire links to a 2012 article on the “layered” history of casserole. I contacted the author of the story, Rachel Nolen, who pointed me to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.

But author Andy Smith, who emailed me the casserole section of the book,  says that he’s never heard this story before and that it can’t be true. But I must have sparked something in him because he emailed me again, a little bit later, saying that he’d done a bit of a search and thinks the story is a relatively recent invention.

Then he told me about a book I hadn’t see before - The Berlin Dictionary. It’s a crowd-sourced dictionary - really a roast - of local lore but casserole didn’t make the cut.

Part of the problem of attribution for something like casserole is that casserole itself is more of a category than a specific dish. The name even comes from a dish - sauce pan in French. A casserole is still a type of baking dish you can buy.

And the contents of that dish likely didn’t have one inventor but many. A bunch of stuff cooked in a dish together appears in cuisines around the world…. And has for centuries even if we didn’t call it by that name.

Recipes for casseroles start appearing in American cookbooks in the late 19th century but the dish really grew in popularity during the Depression and World Wars. Vegetables and starches helped to pad a meal so that a small portion of meat could become a more filling dish during times of hardship.

Casseroles became even more popular in the mid-20th century as a vehicle for leftovers… often bound together with a can or two of condensed cream of what-have-you soup.

So Elmire Jolicoeur probably didn’t invent the casserole but she probably made one because… who hasn’t?

Setting the casserole aside, Elmire Jolicoeur deserves to be remembered… as an educator and ambassador to her town.