Due to the late launch of this blog – a bit later than originally expected – I had not anticipated starting so closely to the holidays. Cooking alone requires quite a bit of forward-thinking. However, any food blogger can tell you that holiday blogging is usually planned a couple months in advance.
What to do?
“What about the history of the green bean casserole?” my friend and local author/food-blogger Bruce Bradley suggested. “I’d love to know where that came from.”
Well, Bruce. I can manage that. So please forgive the general lack of holiday-themed postings and accept this casserole with my apologies.
Few uniquely American dishes beyond the sweetened pumpkin pie conjure images of Thanksgiving than the green bean casserole. The creamy mushroom-covered green beans with that crunch of french-fried onions was a product of the Campbell’s Test Kitchen. The recipe was developed in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a staff member of the kitchen’s Home Economics department. In the numerous interviews she has given, she does not recall how she came up with the idea. The goal with the recipe, along with much of the recipes from the Campbell’s Test Kitchen, was to create simple, tasty dishes with ingredients commonly found in the kitchen – and which, of course, prominently feature Campbell’s products.
Each of the individual staff of the Test Kitchen would develop recipes in the big open room at the company’s headquarters in Camden, New Jersey. The kitchens were designed with standard appliances, attempting to mimic the conditions of the typical American kitchen. The women – many of whom held degrees in Home Economics – would cook their recipes, and offer them at regular meetings to the other members of the group. Then, the recipes would be individually scrutinized, with a rating number assigned on a card and written suggestions for improvements. Only after the cards were collected would the recipes be verbally discussed in an effort to prevent people from being swayed by others opinions. Very few recipes ever made it through this process without some sort of revision.
The french-fried onions, as many would agree today, are what make this recipe special. According to Reilly, there was an effort to “up-market” American cuisine in the 1950s. While today, this would often mean making it more rich, slapping on a fancy label, and charging more, at the time it was a matter of making the food taste and look better economically. The onions not only offered additional flavor and texture to the dish, the toasted yellow provided a much-desired contrast to an otherwise grayish-green dish.
Reilly was unaware of the popularity of her recipe for many years. It wasn’t until the 1960s when Reilly was informed by the Campbell’s recipe department that out of the hundreds of recipes they released to the public each year, the green bean casserole was the single most-requested recipe they had ever made. An estimated 20-30% of American households make the famous casserole for Thanksgiving, which roughly calculates to a conservative 17.6 million households. In a company study, the Campbell Soup Company estimates that 40% of the annual sales of their Cream of Mushroom soup are used specifically for this purpose.
Both Campbell’s and Mrs. Reilly have noted that the original recipe had only five common ingredients. However, the “Classic Green Bean Casserole” recipe featured on the cans and on the company website have six. This recipe includes soy sauce which was not a common kitchen ingredient in most households in the United States in 1955. French’s, the popular makers of mustard and canned french-fried onions have team with Campbell’s on presenting this recipe since 1995, when French’s bought the onion product from Durkee. French’s public recipe has only five ingredients – without the soy sauce – and is likely closer to the original recipe. The original recipe card written by Dorcas Reilly was donated to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio in 2002, along side Peter Durand’s invention of the tin can and Ezra Warner’s invention of the tin can opener.
While the recipe below is the classic, many families have a tradition of “doctoring-it-up” with ingredients like drained canned mushrooms, hot sauce, diced tomatoes and red peppers.
What do you put in your recipe?
1 (10 3/4 oz.) can Cream of Mushroom Soup
3/4 cup milk
1/8 tsp. black pepper
2 (9 oz. each) pkgs. frozen cut green beans, thawed*
(You may substitute 2 cans (14 1/2 oz. each) cut green beans, drained or 4 cups fresh, cooked cut green beans.)
1 1/3 cups French Fried Onions
Mix soup, milk and pepper in a 1 1/2 -qt. baking dish. Stir in beans and 2/3 cup of French Fried Onions. Bake at 350°F for 30 min. or until hot. Stir. Top with remaining 2/3 cup of onions. Bake 5 min. until onions on top are golden.