From the Farm: Lenten menu’s tasteful tuna casserole recipe a reminder of Marjorie Main

March 6, 2024

The one-and-only humorous Hoosier character actress Marjorie Main ranks as a favorite in our family.

Her later-in-life star acclaim came from her plucky, no-nonsense portrayal of bossy, foghorn-voiced Ma Kettle in Universal Pictures’ 10-movie franchise of the “Ma and Pa Kettle” films, all after an early Indiana farm life start that launched an unlikely path to fame, much to the disapproval of her father.

Amid her Hollywood hot streak in the “Ma and Pa Kettle” films of the late 1940s and early 1950s, she also shared starring credits with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in “The Long, Long Trailer” in 1954. She only has a short but memorable scene, as a nosey and intrusive (yet well-meaning) neighbor as part of the overly friendly crowds sharing lots in an overnight trailer park.

She greets her new (and just temporary overnight neighbors) with a basket of casseroles, hearty enough to feed an army of guests, all of the latter of whom end up socializing, drinking and dining in the trailer of the characters played by Lucy and Desi, interfering with what should have been the newlywed couple’s honeymoon night.

Since this week’s column shares a terrific and neighborly tuna casserole recipe, my thoughts and recollections darted to Marjorie Main and her crowd-control casserole scene in “The Long, Long Trailer.”

Main was born Mary Tomlinson on Feb. 24, 1890, on a farm in rural Marion County, about 20 miles south of Indianapolis. When she was age 9, her father, a minister, moved the family to Elkhart.

She spent a year at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana, and then convinced her father to allow her to spend her summer traveling in Shakespeare stock theatre, which led her to meet her future husband, Dr. Stanley LeFevre Krebs, a psychologist, salesman and public lecturer, who was traveling the same stage circuit. With her husband’s help, they dreamed up her stage name “Marjorie Main,” an entertainer alias to avoid embarrassment to her father about her chosen profession. The couple selected the last name “Main,” taken from writer Sinclair Lewis’ work “Main Street.”

While on the road, Marjorie met W.C. Fields, and he invited her to play his comedy foil in his vaudeville show “The Family Ford,” which later led her to share the stage with Field’s film co-star Mae West, with Main cast in 1927 as West’s mother in the play “The Wicked Age.”

Following her husband’s death in 1935, Main concentrated more on film roles, and the death of silent screen star Marie Dressler a year earlier prompted the press to dub Main as Dressler’s natural successor for her matronly, stone-faced comedic roles.

“They have been looking for a successor to the late Marie Dressler in the cinema capital for some time and Marjorie Main is perhaps the answer,” wrote Damon Runyon in his Sept. 19, 1940, syndicated column for Hearst Newspapers.

Soon, Main was being cast in Dressler’s film roles and even opposite the latter’s frequent onscreen partner, actor Wallace Beery, until he died in 1949. Beery was also the second husband of silent film great Gloria Swanson.

“There was only one Marie Dressler, and no one could ever succeed her,” Main said in interviews.

In 1947 Main was cast opposite Percy Kilbride and a brood of 15 onscreen children as hillbilly neighbors Ma and Pa Kettle in “The Egg and I” starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the Kettle characters proved so popular, they spawned 10 spin-off films for a franchise that earned more than $35 million and was credited with saving Universal Pictures from bankruptcy.

Her other most famous films, all featuring the same larger-than-life persona of a frazzled and good-hearted maven with a head crowned by stacked and pinned hair, include playing Katie the maid opposite Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 1944.

Main rarely returned to Indiana after she moved to California, where she lived in a simple house with no servants except a gardener, working beside him to assist with yard work. She flew home in 1943 for the Indianapolis funeral of her 74-year-old mother. Her father had died years earlier, just as her career had started to gel. In 1965, the Franklin College alumni council attempted to woo Main to return to campus to be honored at homecoming, but to no avail.

“At age 75, it’s too big of a trip for me and I was only there for a year at college, but I’ll never forget those days,” school officials quoted as her reply when she declined the invite.

Main had no children nor living relatives when she died of cancer in April 1975 at age 85 in Los Angeles. Years earlier, she had her husband’s body, which was buried in Pennsylvania, moved to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, where she was later buried beside him.

“I don’t think I could have ever played the part of Ma Kettle if I hadn’t lived on a farm in Indiana,” Main said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The tuna casserole recipe I’m sharing today comes from reader and friend Ed Weinberger of Tinley Park, Illinois, who holds the distinction of having a recipe published two decades earlier in my original “From the Farm” cookbook from 2004.

Ed Weinberger of Tinley Park, Illinois, at home on the patio with his 15-year-old poodle Aimee in July 2023, likes to entertain guests with a variety of recipes, both new and heirloom favorites, for his planned menus. (Philip Potempa/for Post-Tribune)
Ed Weinberger of Tinley Park, Illinois, at home on the patio with his 15-year-old poodle Aimee in July 2023, likes to entertain guests with a variety of recipes, both new and heirloom favorites, for his planned menus. (Philip Potempa/for Post-Tribune)

“This tuna casserole recipe is made from scratch and was inspired by one printed in the ‘Atlanta Junior League Cookbook,’ a gift from my older brother Tom who lives in Marietta, Georgia,” said Ed during a recent table conversation at a dinner party he hosted in January.

“I make this casserole for our friend Jen, who is a vegetarian, but will agree to eat this tuna casserole recipe as long as I don’t substitute the can of cream of celery soup for canned cream of mushroom or cream of chicken. It’s a great Lenten menu recipe.”

My own favorite tuna casserole recipe is my mom Peggy’s tuna bake recipe, found in my second cookbook “More From the Farm” released in 2007. But Ed’s variation using extra milk and cheese ranks as a close second.

Columnist Philip Potempa has published four cookbooks and is the director of marketing at Theatre at the Center. He can be reached at pmpotempa or mail your questions: From the Farm, PO Box 68, San Pierre, Ind. 46374.

Ed’s Tempting Lenten Tuna Casserole

Makes 6 servings

3 cups medium-sized noodles of choice

1 can (7 ounces) tuna, drained

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 cup diced celery

1/3 cup diced onion

1/4 cup chopped pimiento

1 teaspoon salt

1 can (10-ounce) cream of celery soup

1 cup milk

8 ounces shredded cheese

1/2 cup slivered almonds


1.       Heat oven to 425 degrees.

2.       Cook noodles according to package directions and drain.

3.       Combine noodles, tuna, mayonnaise, diced vegetables and salt.

4.       Blend soup and milk, heating thoroughly in a bowl for smooth consistency. Add cheese, heating and stirring until cheese melts.

5.       Combine soup mixture with noodle mixture. Spoon into an ungreased one-and-one-half-quart round casserole. Sprinkle with almonds.

6.       Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until bubbly.

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