Last week, I read of the demise of Dorcas Reilly at age 92. Not familiar with Dorcas? As we approach Thanksgiving, we should bow our heads in homage to the lady who invented the now ubiquitous Thanksgiving repast, the green bean casserole.
I did not know green bean casserole had an inventor. I always assumed it was an evolutionary thing descended from Jack’s mother, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, who was sorely pressed to deal with the bounty from her son’s giant beanstalk.
At the very least, I thought the recipe must have been brought to America by Pilgrims on the Mayflower.
I was surprised to learn it was introduced in 1955 by Dorcas, who was a home economist for the Campbell Soup Company.
Though frozen food existed in 1955, the selections in supermarkets were sparse. Canned foods prevailed in that era. As Thanksgiving loomed, the Associated Press approached the Campbell Soup Company to create a recipe that included green beans and Campbell’s mushroom soup, two products that were certainly a staple in my childhood kitchen.
As a child, I cannot think of an occasion when we ever sat down to a bowl of mushroom soup. Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup was always on hand but only to be used in creative, impromptu casseroles created by my late mother, which were taken to potluck dinners or to families who had lost a loved one.
While Dorcas invented the green bean casserole in the test kitchen of the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, N.J., most Southern cooks of my mother’s generation could have given Dorcas a run for her money. Southern cooks excelled at making casseroles from a myriad array of items, not necessarily green beans.
Ryan Seacrest of “American Idol” fame, who grew up in Atlanta, last week lamented on his morning show of the disillusionment he felt upon learning his mother did not invent the recipe that she had taken credit for each Thanksgiving. I surmise most children growing up in the South would feel the same disillusionment.
Few of any recipes are original. They all have their beginning in ancient history and are tweaked over centuries by cooks utilizing food sources at hand. As each cook tweaks the recipe, they lay claim to it.
In the case of recipes for green beans, few cooks have made dishes without adulterating them.
Green beans, after all, are green and taste vegetal. Over centuries, they have been adulterated with cream, butter, salt and other vegetables to make them more palatable.
A 1744 recipe from Colonial Williamsburg gives instructions for making a green bean amulet, a corruption of the French word “omelet.” This recipe calls for boiling green beans in salted water until tender, then adding them to a pan of sautéed onions and cooking the mixture down in cream. This mixture is placed atop a fluffy five-egg omelet.
“Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book,” first published in 1861, says that green beans should always be served with a side tureen of butter and parsley, and that boiled bacon should always accompany the dish.
When Dorcas was charged with inventing a dish built around canned green beans and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, she instinctively turned to ingredients used throughout history to adulterate green beans.
Her simple recipe calls for one can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, one teaspoon soy sauce, four cups of cooked green beans (2 cans of 14.5 ounces each), one-half cup milk, a dash of black pepper and two-thirds of a cup of French’s french fried onions.
All the above ingredients should be combined and placed in a 1.5-quart casserole. Bake at 350 degrees until the mixture bubbles. Remove from oven and stir. Top with one-third cup of reserved onions and bake an additional 5 minutes until onions are golden.
If never exposed to this holiday treat, you might be fortunate. If a devotee of green bean casserole, take advantage of making it a second time when National Green Bean Casserole Day is celebrated on Dec. 3.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.