Tuna Checkerboard Casserole – A Mid-Century Recipe Test

Posted on Aug 31 2011 - 6:05am by RetroRuth

Well, well, well! We are back to tuna already here on the Mid-Century Menu. And can you blame us? We totally love the stuff!*

*not completely a lie

Mmmm…mmm…yes! Canned tuna. Again. Oh the excitement! Oh the thrill!

Oh, the smell of tuna.

Oh god. We have to do something else soon. Really, really soon. Seriously.

Anyway, this week, we have Tuna Checkerboard Casserole that was submitted by Elise! Elise writes:

Hello, Ruth!

As I don’t eat fish myself, I’m simultaneously disgusted and enthralled by any recipe involving seafood. And when you put out the cry for a recipe, I knew just the one to dig up. I have a collection of recipes from Helm’s Bakery that I found at an estate sale a few years ago; from what I can tell, these are pamphlets handed out weekly to housewives all over Southern California to help them make excellent meals with bakery fresh bread from their trucks. For the most part, the recipes are all quite good. Kind of a mid-century 30-minute meal situation, they’re all relatively quick and use a lot of pre-cooked items. I’ve had a lot of success with it.

As for this recipe, I’m very curious to know how someone else finds it. It even uses the dreaded American cheese (which DOES taste like cigarette butts!). The recipe also tells you to serve this with cheese breadsticks (quartered hot dog buns buttered & pressed into American cheese & baked on a cookie sheet) and Gay Coleslaw (seriously). Sounds like mid-century deliciousness!!!

I’ve transcribed the recipe below–I’m having trouble attaching a picture to the email at the moment, but please email me if you’d like images of the real deal. Enjoy!! And thank you for creating one of the most endlessly entertaining websites I read.

Checkerboard Tuna Casserole

1 package (8-ounce) elbow or shell macaroni

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour,

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups milk

1 can (6 1/2-ounce) chunk-style tuna, drained

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 large, ripe tomato

8 slices (1/2 pound package) process pimiento American cheese

Cook macaroni in large amount of boiling salted water just until tender. Drain. While macaroni cooks, melt butter in large saucepan. Remove from heat. Blend in flour, mustard, salt, Worcestershire and pepper. Stir in milk. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until sauce thickens and boils 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in cooked macaroni, tuna and onion. Cut 1/2″ thick slice from middle of tomato, save to decorate top. Thinly slice rest of tomato. Place half of macaroni mixture in oiled 2-quart baking dish. Top with the thin tomato slices and 4 slices cheese. Spoon remaining macaroni mixture over cheese layer. Cut 4 remaining cheese slices into 4 strips each (to make 16 strips). Arrange cheese strips, checkerboard fashion, or in any decorative pattern, on top of casserole. Cut reserved thick tomato slice into 6 wedges. Place on top of casserole. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degree oven until bubbly hot. OR refrigerate until just before serving time. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Thanks for your consideration!


Thank you Elise for sending in this recipe. The ones with American Cheese always make Tom squirm!


I couldn’t find pimento processed American cheese, so I had to make the best of it with some sliced cheese an a jar of pimentos. Yum!


There is really no significance to this picture, other than I wanted to show off my chartreuse whale-tail melamine dish. Gotta show the melamine love.


My least favorite part of mid-century casseroles is always the raw onion. Why do they always do that? A 30 minute oven time is NOT enough to cook raw onion, especially in a thick casserole.   


Makeshift pimento cheese and mad layering skills. Awesome.


I have to say that this casserole was one of the most fun I’ve ever put together, I think. I also loved the way it looked with the tomato pinwheels. I don’t think it could be much more retro than this!


A little bit of the checkerboard look was lost in the oven, but I still think it ended up looking rather well!


“What kind of cheese is on the top of this?”

Poor, poor guy.


Already he doesn’t care for it.




“Why does American cheese always have to taste so bad?”

I just shook my head, took a big bite and was pretty disappointed. The onion taste was strong and the cheese overwhelming. You could barely taste the tuna at all.

“Well,” I said, “At least the tomato is good in here.”

“Blech, I hate tomato in casseroles.”

The Verdict: Edible, but not very good. The onion remained raw after cooking, which added an unpleasant mystery crunch.  The white sauce was pretty tasteless, and there was a lot of American cheese in this thing. The center layer was completely unnecessary. This probably could be upgraded to “good” if the pimento was stirred into the cream sauce, the onions were cooked and the cheese content was halved and replaced with Parmesan. We ended up eating all of this one as leftovers in the end, which is something, at least. Also, we also learned one of Tom’s few food weaknesses: Tomato in casseroles. Add it to the list!

Oh, and: Thanks for the recipe, Elise!

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I love everything retro, vintage, mid-century, kitsch and all things atomic! A 21st century housewife just trying to fit in...to the 50's. I have a passion for vintage recipes and an enormous vintage cookbook collection that I keep testing, even though by now I should know better. Creator of Mid-Century Menu (www.midcenturymenu.com), No Pattern Required (www.nopatternrequired.com), and I Ate The 80's (www.iatethe80s.com).

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5 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Elise August 31, 2011 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    Oh, wow!! Thanks so much for featuring this. Looks just as horrendous as I imagined… My apologies to Tom, too, for making him eat such a disaster. Yeesh.

  2. Retrochef August 31, 2011 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    … well, it was pretty, at least 🙂

  3. Anne September 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    My mom used to make this casserole. I went looking for the recipe and could not find it. Googled tuna casserole macaroni cheese tomato and got tons of results but not the right one. Decided to google Checkerboard Casserole and here it is! All this time, I thought my mom just called it that!!! Thanks so much, I’m making this for dinner tonight!!!

  4. Stephanie November 25, 2015 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    This is so pretty! Of course, I’ll have to mess with the recipe by cooking the onion in the butter before adding the flour. Probably add some minced celery in with the onion, too. And mix in some frozen peas. I’ll get some sliced cheddar from the deli so I can make a neat topping, and I think the pimientos tossed around make it especially attractive.

    • Stephanie November 25, 2015 at 11:44 pm - Reply

      And half milk/half chicken stock.

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