• Austin Sunset by Randall Chancellor

Casserole Queens

Written by Ysmay on .

Sandy and Crystal Photograph by Michael Lovitt

If you're an Austin native, you may recognize the Casserole Queens, or perhaps you have even ordered from them. Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollack have been delivering casseroles in Austin, Texas, since 2006.

They also teach cooking classes at Whole Foods and Central Market in the Austin area. They have been featured on Food Network's Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, Bobby Flay Radio on Sirius XM, The Today Show, and local television and talk radio shows.

The Casserole Queens are the authors of a New York Times Bestselling cookbook full of retro style and simple, satisfying recipes. Their unique and quirky perspective, along with delectable recipes, will inspire an enjoyable evening around the dinner table.

We sat down with the Casserole Queens over coffee and talked about food, cooking, and life in Austin.

Are you native Austinites or transplants?

Crystal: I have been here for 14 years this year so I feel it is home now. Aside from growing up in Georgia, this is the longest I've ever lived anywhere. I went to school in Boston and then I lived in Salt Lake for a while, but this reminds me the most of home.

Sandy: Deep South Texas is where I'm originally from, but I've been up here since 1995. How many years is that? 16? I went to New York for culinary school and then came back to Austin. It was always my intention to come back to the city because I love it with all my heart.

Crystal: I bet it was an adjustment for a little Texas girl to go to the city!

Sandy: It was! The big scary city with subways and everything!

When did you know that Austin was the city for you?

Sandy: I've known a long time. I've loved the city since I moved here. There's something about the way it hugs you. You can easily adapt. Nothing's too crazy, nothing's too fast. People are open and friendly. There's a great and interesting art scene, and there's great and interesting and smart people,  and technology here, and it's a good hub of cool and smart all at the same time. I've known from the beginning. I just love this town. I will always live here. This will always be where I come back to.

Crystal: For me it's just growing up in the South. Texas has a lot of what I love about the South. The friendliness, the hospitality, and a little bit of the old-fashioned ways, but not so narrow minded. I feel Austin is a very liberal, progressive city and it's got all the things I love about the South. Yes, it's a big city, yet it's small enough it feels very comfortable and “home.”  It still feels you'll run into someone you know somewhere.

Sandy: And it definitely seems like somewhere people stay. People don't come here and think "Oh, I gotta get out of this town." People come, and they stay, and they build relationships, and our friend network is giant here. In other cities, I don't think you can develop giant friend networks like that. You're going to love it and never want to leave. Even if it is fifty degrees in the middle of winter, you'll be like, "That's awesome."

Crystal: There's something to be said for sport shorts and walking around on the greenbelt when everybody else is covered in snow. I've been here for a while. I feel like it's home. I feel like an Austinite. I feel like I have the right to bitch about it growing and getting too big and everything else everybody complains about.

We’ve heard you have a knack for livening up old favorites. Where does this come from?

Sandy: I think it's something I've learned over time. I grew up with my Mom - who's an amazing cook, she never thought she was, but she is - and she never thought she did anything special, but I still crave things that she makes. I grew up cooking next to her, and then when I went to culinary school it shifted the way I look at food. It really changed everything. I like to look at food in terms of what cool twist can go in it, what can make it a little bit different, or make it appeal to my palate.

We have very different palates. I tend to have a more simple, fewer ingredients perspective, and Crystal likes lots of flavors and big and bold. We like to eat each other's food, but I think we have very different styles. I think the "clean" comes from my French culinary background. They tend to have simple ingredients and I think that's what inspires me. So I did learn this over time, and I am still developing it. That's what's so awesome. We learn something new every day.

You come from generations of fine cooking. What's a trick or two you've picked up from your family?

Crystal: Oh, there's lots of tips, but things that I think I picked up from my mother are perhaps not things I classify as a trick. One is my love for dishes and serving utensils and platters. Mom always told me if I'm going to take the time and love to make a fantastic meal I need to present it with as much love.

I have an obsession with dishes. I probably own more dishes than any single redhead should own in their entire life. But it even goes down to the glassware. I even have brandy glasses. I've never had a glass of brandy in my life, but someone is going to come to my house and want a glass of brandy, and I will have a glass for it. It just makes it a little bit more special to always sit down and have beautiful dishes. I think you should always make your presentation as beautiful as your cooking.

She's an incredible hostess.

We love the clothes! Where did the idea for the 1950’s theme come from?

Sandy: Casseroles are from the 50's so it was the natural progression. We thought, "Wouldn't it be fun if..." and Crystal is really an amazing marketer and worked with our designer and came up with the look and feel about everything. And it just evolved into that.

Crystal: And in Austin, it's not that everybody loves a gimmick, but embracing that and keeping Austin weird, the fact that we do dress up, well, it's fun, and I think people really enjoy it.

Sandy: And we enjoy it. When we started to do this we were looking for something that was interesting and fun and if you're going to do something, you might as well do it all the way. We're not shy, and we like to be out there, and we ate up the idea of doing something different and fun and quirky.

Crystal: It was a way to position ourselves but it also ties into what we were trying to do with our business which is bring families around the dinner table again. Because everyone is so busy these days and I think it's nice to go back to a time when things were a little bit simpler. And also, retro is in right now and it was fun to build our brand around that.

Sandy: But I think we were ahead of the curve on that one. We were already doing it and then Mad Men came in.

You just had a cookbook come out this month. What can we expect?

Sandy: There are lots of kitchen tips and really great freezer ideas, what you can do to change hings up, and how to work within that realm. What you can do to change stuff up. And we teach people about the ingredients in it.

We try to focus on people and the breadth of what people can do. Some people want to make their own stocks and want to make their own ingredients within the recipe, and we give them recipes for doing that. But, we're not food snobs, and a can of cream of mushroom from the grocery store is going to do great if you're short on time or money or just need to get something onto the table. We give people a lot of options and I'm proud of that part of the book.

Crystal: I think you really get our personalities in this book. It's not just, "Here's a recipe. It's delicious. Make it." It's more about a personal connection from our childhoods, family memories, or something we've experienced together. I hope it comes across as something genuine.

Sandy: A lot of these recipes are our family recipes. There is Charlotte's Prime Rib. Her Mom is Charlotte. And my Mom loves bread pudding, so we have Marge Approved Bread Pudding. It's so family heavy because we are so family-centric, and that's the where that Southern comes out. We are about big happy families and I think that comes across.

Your cookbook includes some of America’s favorite casserole recipes, but is there a casserole you would never dream of making?

Crystal: I'm always surprised about the green bean casserole. It is so unappetizing to me and yet so many people love it with all their heart.

We were doing the book trailer and I was sitting around interviewing some people and I cannot tell you how many times green bean casserole came up with so much love and adoration. It's a staple and part of their family traditions and they can't imagine a holiday without it, and if they didn't get in line at a certain time, it would be gone. And I have never had that love for green bean casserole. I will never make it. I don't want to make it.

Sandy: It will never be on our menu. Agreed?

Crystal: Agreed!

If you had to sum up Austin in one word, what would it be?

Crystal: Home!

Sandy: It's exactly what I was going to say. Heart, maybe. Love... but home. Home is exactly it, and it's even more pronounced for me when I'm not able to be here every day because then I don't take it for granted when I am here. It's one of the greatest cities in the country, it really is. And this is where my girl is! We are very fortunate to be able to work together. I think we both feel very lucky.

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