A Brief History of Green Bean Casserole

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So Thanksgiving is just a day or two away. Does everyone have their assignments? Have we hunted and gathered at the markets and grocery stores for everything we need to put our dishes together so that we don’t have to hit the stores when the level of desperation and crowding runs high? What’re you making?

My sister is doing the big meal and my husband is doing the dessert, so I’m getting off fairly lightly this year. I’ll be cooking only two items on Thursday, and both known for their easy-peasiocity: biscuits and green bean casserole.

greenbean closeup

Though I didn’t grow up with it, I’ve come to love and expect the green bean casserole since it is a staple of the Thanksgiving feast for my Minnesotan husband. To me, the squishy and crunchy side dish is a guilty pleasure, like stuffing, and something that is very easy to keep putting on your plate a tablespoon or two at a time, after you’ve stopped counting whether you’ve had seconds or thirds. Not everyone feels that way, I know. It’s not exactly a great contribution to the repertoire of fine vegetable dishes, but it is a classic comfort food casserole and don’t go trying to haute-it-up with fresh green beans. It just won’t work. (It’s been tried.)

I decided to go seek out the history of the green bean casserole and was pleased that it was so easy to gratify my curiosity. The Green Bean Casserole as we know it was invented by a woman named Dorcas Reilly who was then on staff at the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, New Jersey. Her idea was to create something different, pleasant, easy and using items that would typically be stocked in a kitchen cupboard in 1955. The five ingredients in the original recipe were:

  • Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • Milk
  • Canned French cut green beans (drained)
  • Black pepper
  • French’s French fried onions

I am intrigued at the thought that the French Fried onions were something that people kept stocked in their pantry. I only tend to buy them when a green bean casserole is on my horizon, and yet I’d like to have another recipe that employs them because I often throw out the leftover fried onions that didn’t make it into the casserole and go stale in the cupboard. (One of the reasons I was extra excited to enjoy them as a topping on my Polish sandwich I mentioned in my last post the zapiekanka.)

Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup has been around since 1934 and, according to an article from the History channel by Stephanie Butler, “It was widely used as casserole filler in the Midwest, popping up in enough Minnesotan hotdish recipes that it was sometimes referred to as ‘Lutheran binder.’” (Ha. I love that.) I buy the 25% lower sodium version, and it’s still pretty darn salty.

comsoup

Butler also reports that Campbell claims that 40% of cream of mushroom soup sold in the US these days goes into making green bean casseroles. The fried onions were an inspired touch – they added color and crunch. The Campbell’s recipe was updated to include a tablespoon of soy sauce – which is definitely a staple in our kitchen – but I’ve been following the recipe on the back of the French’s onions container, and they do not include soy sauce. Just a side note along those lines – it’s sad when those recipes you rely on that lived on bags and containers disappear, so if you like them, I urge you to write them down. We’re still trying to figure out how to make chocolate chip cookies just the way they used to be done from the old recipe on the back of the bag of Nestle’s chocolate chips that isn’t the same as it used to be.

You can read more about Dorcas R in an Alumni Spotlight piece on the website of her Alma Mater, Drexel University. Dorcas is modest and says the she can’t take sole credit but was part of a team at Campbell’s. Even so, I like to think that this dish originated with one creative cook. For her authorship of the casserole, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. Dorcas says, “Food should be fun. Food should be happy.”

Thank you, Dorcas. I’m with you, and I’m wishing a very fun and Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

reilly_casserole

Dorcas Reilly serving her famous Green Bean casserole.

Green Bean Casserole (from French’s French Fried Onions)

  • 1 can (10-3/4 oz.) Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/8 tsp. black pepper
  • 1-1/3 cups French’s French Fried Onions
  • 2 cans (14.5 oz.) French cut green beans or 2 (9oz.) pkgs frozen cut green beans

Mix soup and milk, then add pepper, beans and 2/3 cup onions in 1-1/2 qt. casserole. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes, or until hot. Stir. Top with remaining onions. Bake 5 min.

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