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Boomer’s Journal: Green bean casserole

The infamous green bean casserole donned our Thanksgiving table in the mid-’60s. My mother, who loved her Better Homes and Gardens magazine, had found a picture of the recipe for the casserole dish alongside the full-page advertisement of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup…in full color. For a number of reasons, it was truly a historic day when this side dish was accepted into our family.

According to Campbell Soup Company history, the green bean casserole had been created in 1955. Dorcas Reilly led the team that created the recipe while working as a staff member in their home economics department. The inspiration for the dish was “to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.” *

Despite the fact that we really didn’t have a “pantry,” nor did we “always” have Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup on our shelves, the dish made it to our table because of mother’s desire to stay caught up in current trends, those trends provided by her Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

A quick and easy recipe it was. Acceptance was another story. First of all, the concept of cream of mushroom soup in just one can of green beans seemed so foreign to our family. Cream of mushroom soup was only used in tuna hotdish. Cream of mushroom soup, as a soup, would never be served alone, or in something without the word hotdish in it. Second, where on earth had those canned French’s fried onions come from? It was soon determined that the green bean casserole was the only time THEY would, or could, ever be used. Third, green beans were not a favorite on our family table, and rarely served. We didn’t have them in the garden; therefore, we had no home-canned or frozen of our own. Green beans were only served in school lunches, or found in Nelson’s Grocery store on the shelves, along with other canned goods. As kids, we weren’t that crazy about green beans. Finally, was this new “casserole,” a hotdish, or merely a vegetable disguised as something else?

Needless to say, mother served that infamous green bean casserole…and of course, there was a hot debate during that first time. In fact, the entire dinner conversation revolved around this foreign thing on the table. We all tried it, and the vote was in. Yes, we could stomach it with lots of those fried onions on top. However, let’s not get too carried away.

Soon however, we were carried away, and before we knew it, green bean casserole was THE vegetable staple, served during holiday meals, and eventually for Sunday dinners. It soon became the easiest “fancy” way of serving the vegetable side dish for special dinner guests (i.e. anyone we wanted to impress.)

Ultimately, it became the most popular dish to bring to family potluck dinners. As we grew older, with families of our own, mother no longer had to prepare every single holiday meal. Instead, we took turns hosting the holiday family gatherings. If the holiday meal was not at our house, we took turns bringing the sides. In determining who brought what, green bean casserole was always the first that was up for grabs. We all wanted the responsibility of bringing it because it was the easiest thing to prepare. Soon, it was the only side that was brought to the hostess’ house still in the can. Three cans to be exact: one can green beans, either cut, or in the more uppity French-cut style, one can Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and one can of those French’s fried onions. The hostess was expected to provide the Corelle-wear casserole dish. Talk about easy.

Dorcas Reilly, who is credited with creating the recipe for green bean casserole.  Contributed photo

Dorcas Reilly, who is credited with creating the recipe for green bean casserole. Contributed photo

Back to more history, Dorcus Reilly professed to not remember exactly how she came up with green bean casserole. Campbell’s cream of mushroom variety had been around since 1934. Their company history tells us that it was widely used as casserole filler in the Midwest, popping up in enough Minnesota hotdish recipes that it was sometimes referred to as “Lutheran binder.” No one thought to add canned or frozen green beans to the mix until Reilly came along. The fried onions on top were an easy way to add texture and brighten the color of a gray-green dish, and to add a certain festive touch to the proceedings. **

Today, Campbell’s estimates that 40 percent of the cream of mushroom soup sold in the United States go into making green bean casserole. We, of course, are right in the mix of that percentage, and it’s always the first thing up for grabs when determining who-brings-what to the holiday table.


**In 2002, Reilly presented the original recipe card to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. (Wikipedia)

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