63 years of green beans, mushroom soup, and fried onions

On the bon appétit magazine site on 10/26/18, “A moment of silence” by Alex Beggs:

(#1) Green bean casserole (photo from bon appétit)

Rest in peace, dear Dorcas Reilly, inventor of the green bean casserole [who died on 9/15]. Let’s toast a can of cream of mushroom soup in honor of the woman whose vision not only saw how a soup could bind a pot of green beans, but topped the whole thing with crunchy fried onions. Reilly worked in the Campbell’s test kitchen and loved cooking so much that after a full day of developing recipes, she’d go home and cook some more — a lot of soup, according to her husband. While our recipe gets a little bougie with homemade [Cremini] mushroom béchamel, the French’s fried onions on top stay true to the 1955 original. According to Campbell’s, over 20 million homes will serve green bean casserole on Thanksgiving, which is an incredible culinary legacy to leave, if you ask me.

The Reilly link is to Karen Zraick’s obit for her in the 10/24 New York Times. From the death notice:

(#2) “Dorcas B. [Bates] Reilly prepared her famous green-bean casserole at the Campbell Soup test kitchen in Camden in 2005” (photo: Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Mrs. Reilly, who died on Oct. 15 at a hospital in Camden [NJ], was among the first full-time employees of the Campbell’s home economics department, where she helped to create recipes printed on the labels of its products. Her husband, Thomas H. Reilly, confirmed her death. She was 92.

“We worked in the kitchen with things that were most likely to be in most homes,” Mrs. Reilly once said. “It’s so easy. And it’s not an expensive thing to make, too.”

Her recipe calls for mixing a can of cream of mushroom soup, cooked [by steaming, boiling, sautéing, or oven-roasting] green beans [fresh, canned, or frozen; cut green beans in the original recipe — or whole beans], a bit of milk, soy sauce and pepper. Pop it in the oven, toss some crunchy fried onions on top [in later variants from Campbell’s, other ingredients can be added, in particular, bacon bits and/or shredded ceddar cheese], and voilà.

… She and her brother, Linwood Tomlinson Bates, grew up in Glassboro, N.J., and Camden. She attended Camden High School, along with Thomas H. Reilly, whom she would marry in 1959.

In a phone interview, Mr. Reilly said Wednesday that he fell in love with her in the fall of 1940, “but it took awhile” to get together. He served in World War II and the Korean War after high school, while she studied home economics at Drexel. After graduation, she went to work at the Campbell’s test kitchen in Camden.

Mr. Reilly said his wife had grown up in a family of cooks, which spurred her love of food. Even after spending all day in a test kitchen, she would cook at home as well, experimenting and using fresh ingredients. She did make a lot of soup, Mr. Reilly said.

The couple settled in Haddonfield, N.J., where Mr. Reilly got a job as a high school English teacher. The couple had one son, Thomas B. Reilly, and a daughter, Dorcas Tarbell.

Food companies have long had test kitchens, where “home economists” or “test cooks” (originally, all women) worked at developing recipes showcasing the companies’ products. Magazines with culinary interests — Good Housekeeping, Sunset, Gourmet, bon appétit, etc. — established their own, aiming to provide guidance to home cooks (but also modeling lifestyles for their readers and molding tastes in food). And then television programs, stations, and networks. And culinary personalities.

Ingredients. For Campbell’s, it was all about the soup — the versatile Cream of Mushroom soup, crucial ingredient in a great many recipes from the company’s test kitchen:

(#3) Ingredients: water, mushrooms, vegetable oil (corn, canola, and/or soybean), modified food starch, wheat flour. Contains less than 2% of: salt, cream (milk), [dehydrated] whey, soy protein concentrate, monosodium glutamate, yeast extract, flavoring, [dehydrated] garlic.

A star in the stable of soups painted by Andy Warhol:

(#4) Warhol screen print, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)

The soup makes the sauce, but the central ingredient is the green beans. Some possibilities:

(#5) Del Monte canned cut green beans

(#6) Birds Eye frozen cut green beans

(#7) Roasted whole green beans

Finaly, the crowning crispy fried onions:


On the brand, from Wikipedia:

French’s is an American brand of prepared mustard, condiments, fried onions, and other food items [currently being produced: mustard, tomato ketchup, crispy vegetables, potato sticks, Worcestershire sauce]. Created by Robert Timothy French, French’s “Cream Salad Brand” mustard debuted to the world at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. By 1921, French’s Mustard had adopted its trademark pennant and begun advertising to the general public. French’s … is now owned by McCormick & Company

(As far as I can tell, French’s and Campbell’s have never been under the same corporate umbrella, though they’re joined together in Reilly’s green bean casserole.)

Thanksgiving dinners. An overview from Wikipedia:

the [Thanksgiving] meal [with a roast turkey as its centerpiece] often has something of a ritual or traditional quality. Many Americans would say it is “incomplete” without cranberry sauce, stuffing or dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and brussels sprouts. Other commonly served dishes include winter squash and sweet potatoes, the latter often prepared with sweeteners such as brown sugar, molasses, or marshmallows. Fresh, canned, or frozen corn is popular and green beans are frequently served; in particular, green bean casserole, a product invented in 1955 by the Campbell Soup Company to promote use of its cream of mushroom soup, has become a Thanksgiving standard. A fresh salad may be included, especially on the West Coast. Bread rolls or biscuits and cornbread, especially in the South and parts of New England, are served. For dessert, various pies are usually served, particularly pumpkin pie, though apple pie, mincemeat pie, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie are often served as well. [on pumpkin pie and mincemeat pie, see my 10/27 posting “The holidays of our lives”]

Thanksgiving is very much an American thing, and around this general meal template there is quite a lot of variation according to region, race/ethnicity, and social class (as well as family-specific tradition). Apparently, green beans (perhaps with sliced almonds, garlic, or parmesan cheese) have long been one of the possible side dishes in the canonical Thanksgiving dinner; Dorcas Reilly’s contribution was to transform this simple side dish into a composed dish, incorporating novel contrasts of taste and texture.

Now, the primary audience for Reilly’s recipe was homemakers, specifically white (?lower) middle-class women with a somewhat adventurous streak (so that they were open to novelty). It’s not elegant food, but somehow in 63 years it has diffused to 20 million kitchens. (Never to a Zwicky kitchen, though I’ve been to collaborative Thanksgiving dinners where it was one of the contributions. I do have to say that I’m intrigued by the idea of replacing the canned mushroom soup by a béchamel sauce with Cremini mushrooms.) In any case, it would be an interesting, though very challenging, project to investigate how the recipe spread after 1955 along regional, class, racio-ethnic, urban/rural, and other dimensions.

One Response to “63 years of green beans, mushroom soup, and fried onions”

  1. [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky, starting by noting the passing of Dorcas, she who invented green bean casserole, looks at different pre-prepared […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: