The woman who invented the green bean casserole
This Thanksgiving, some 20 million Americans will eat green bean casserole. It's a culinary classic with just six ingredients. It uses a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and milk. It has soy sauce and black pepper. It also has green beans and crunchy fried onions.
It's a retro recipe. It has been appearing on American tables for more than 60 years. It can be traced back to a woman named Dorcas Reilly. She died in October last year.
Dorcas worked as a supervisor at the home economics department of a Campbell's test kitchen in Camden, New Jersey. That was in 1955. She was tasked with creating a recipe. It was for a feature that would appear in the Associated Press. The recipe had to be based on ingredients that any home cook would have on hand. It also had to include Campbell's mushroom soup and green beans.
Dorcas earned a degree in home economics from Drexel University. It was known then as the Drexel Institute of Technology. She got to tinkering. She and her team initially toyed with adding celery salt and ham to the recipe. That's according to Today's Vidya Rao.
She ultimately settled on six simple ingredients. They were affordable. They could be stirred together in a casserole dish. Then they were popped into the oven for 25 minutes. The prep time was minimal. The dish worked well with frozen or canned green beans. The fried onions were pre-packaged.
It was the perfect recipe for post-War America. It was cheap and fuss-free. That kind of cooking was all the rage. Wartime rations on canned goods had been lifted. There were innovations in canning and freezing. These made packaged foods more accessible than ever. This created a culture of convenience cooking. An ever-growing number of women were entering the workforce. But they continued to shoulder the responsibility of keeping the family fed. This fueled the demand for easy-to-make meals.
The dish was originally called "Green Bean Bake." Dorcas' dish really took off when Campbell's began printing the recipe on its mushroom soup cans. That's according to Karen Zraick of the New York Times. Dorcas had created many recipes for the company. These recipes included tuna noodle casserole and Sloppy Joe's made from tomato soup. She was somewhat surprised that the green bean casserole proved to be such a hit.
"We all thought this is very nice, etc. And then when we got the feelings of the consumer, we were really kinda pleasantly shocked," Reilly once said. That's according to Today's Rao.
"I'm very proud of this, and I was shocked when I realized how popular it had become."
Green bean casserole has endured over the ages. Forty percent of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup sales go towards making the dish. That's what a spokesperson told Rao in 2015. You can find upgraded versions of the recipe. Bon Appétit recommends ditching the canned soup for whole milk, cream and fresh cremini mushrooms. Reilly's hand-written original recipe card even made it into the archives of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Reilly's pioneering accomplishments were not limited to the test kitchen. She was born in 1926, in Woodbury, New Jersey. She was raised in Camden. She became one of the first members in her family to attend college. She was a supervisor at Campbell's.
"She was a trailblazer in a world in which women were generally on the sidelines of corporate America." That's according to a video tribute from her alma mater. She took time off to raise her children in 1961. She returned to the company two decades later. She rose to manager of the Campbell's Kitchen. It was a position she held until her retirement in 1988. Reilly was never one to trumpet her achievements. That's according to her son, Thomas B. Reilly. He spoke with Bonnie L. Cook of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"She was not a flashy person," he says. "She didn't bask in the limelight. She just went in and did her job every day, like most blue-collar people."
Reilly's approach to cooking was similarly salt-of-the-earth. "I think food should be fun," she once said, "and food should be happy."