Food history: green bean casserole

Will you be making a green bean casserole for Thanksgiving next week?

If you love this staple but maybe want to switch it up a bit, we’ve got the classic recipe along with some variations at the end of the post.

I’ll admit it – it’s one of my favorite holiday meals. I love the contrasting textures of the green beans and french fried onions, with the creaminess of cream of mushroom soup.

Indeed, the history of green bean casserole does begin with Campbell’s.

During the late 1940s and 1950s the men were home from war. And they wanted a hot meal on the table.

The now iconic image of a woman as the ultimate lady of the house, providing savory, home cooked dishes for her family, began during this era.  

Campbell’s knew that that the key to bridging the gap between company and consumer was to go right for the home cook. In a brilliant maneuver, Campbell’s extended their culinary team to include home economists.

(Side note: You can read about this, and other interesting food company backgrounds, in Salt, Sugar, Fat. It’s an excellent read.)

These professional homemakers worked with Campbell’s chefs to create recipes – including, Dorcas Rielly, inventor of the green bean casserole, who worked there on and off from 1949 up until 1988.

Prior to the internet, people had to actually purchase cookbooks for instructions on how to prepare dishes. Campbell’s, along with other major food brands, took advantage of lightweight, pocket-sized recipe pamphlets. They were cheaper and easier to maneuver than cookbooks. 

Campbell’s owned a kitchen in Camden, New Jersey, focused on production of these recipe pamphlets. Reilly worked in this kitchen, and in 1955, she famously created the green bean bake, which of course came to be known as the green bean casserole.

The original recipe contained five ingredients: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, frozen green beans, french fried onions, milk, and black pepper; today, Campbell’s recipe includes soy sauce, a food item that was uncommon during the 1950s.

The appeal of the green bean casserole, besides its obvious aesthetic beauty of contrasting colors and textures, is its affordability and simplicity. Housewives could make this dish as the main point of a meal, with inexpensive ingredients that are often on hand.

Also, it’s one of those recipes that is really hard to screw up, which is always nice.

The classic comfort food’s connection with the holiday season came about from an Associated Press feature for Thanksgiving, the same year the casserole debuted, 1955.

Amazingly, this frozen-vegetables-and-canned-soup-based dish has remained extremely popular since its birth, even today when fresh foods are all the rage.

In 2002, Reilly donated the original, yellowed, 8 x 11 recipe card for the casserole to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

Supposedly, Reilly was also the “driving force” behind the tomato soup meatloaf, which I actually use as my go-to meatloaf. But according to Time, that meatloaf has not taken off.

There is no doubt about the green bean casserole, though. Campbell’s estimates that about 40% of their cream of mushroom soup sales today go towards green bean casseroles.

The cream of mushroom soup, by the way, originated in 1934, 21 years before the casserole.

As promised, here are some variations on the green bean casserole, along with the classic one.

Personally, I love taking an old favorite and giving it a twist. In fact, speaking of french fried onions, I put them on my sloppy joes.  

Instead of going for a whole new recipe, you can also make super quick additions to the classic one. 

Reilly has been said to add chopped red bell peppers or pimientos to the casserole for Christmas, to add festive color.

  • Crumbled bacon
  • Shredded Cheddar cheese
  • Water chestnuts
  • Toasted almonds
  • Sauteed mushrooms
  • Fried shallots
  • Corn kernels