In 2000, former Sun-Times artist Bill Linden wrote an ode to the green bean casserole, the Thanksgiving masterpiece of Dorcas Reilly. It originally was published Nov. 20, 2000. In honor of Reilly, who died earlier this month, the Sun-Times serves it up again.
Not all Thanksgiving food traditions started with Pilgrims.
The year 1955 marked the birth of one of the biggest current traditions. That’s the year the green bean casserole was born. I know this because Jeff Bedard, the Campbell’s Soup Guy in Charge of Queries Like This, told me it was. I, along with other naive Americans, readily assumed that Al Gore, as a child, invented it in his Easy-Bake Oven before he went on to invent other (but not nearly as important or tasty) things.
Bedard assured me this was not the case. It was invented by Dorcas “Grandmother of the Green Bean Casserole” Reilly, the manager of Campbell’s test kitchens from 1949 until 1961. It originally was called mushroom green beans with crisp onion top. She described the mixture as a “natural combination.”
“Nearly every family served green beans. Cream of Mushroom soup also was very popular, and cooks felt very comfortable using it in recipes,” Reilly is quoted as saying. “The green bean casserole created a way to `dress up’ meals by bringing together two of America’s favorite foods.”
The recipe was sent to the Associated Press, which put it out on the wire to rave reviews from side-dish aficionados nationwide. Unlike the Macarena, it would go on to become a Thanksgiving family tradition. Never mind America’s legend about the first Thanksgiving dinner. Today, when holiday cooks are preparing their Thanksgiving menus, right up there with the turkey and the stuffing, the green bean casserole is a must-have.
Bedard offers some staggering green bean casserole statistics. More than half of all Americans are familiar with or have tasted the green bean casserole. Some 28 million happy households make it at least once each year with 20 million (give or take a few green beans) of those creamy, crunchy babies baked on Turkey Day. It’s one of Campbell’s top three most requested recipes. (In case you ever get on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” the other two are one-dish chicken and rice and tomato soup spice cake.)
Wait, there are more impressive numbers. More than 25 percent of all cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom (introduced in 1934) are sold during the November and December holiday good eatin’ season.
Being a comfort food kind of guy, I love the green bean casserole. To me, it’s right up there with macaroni and cheese, Chunky Monkey ice cream and properly chilled double martinis. Through the years I’ve enjoyed it served piping hot on fine china in my relatives’ elegant dining rooms.
I’ve also enjoyed it ice cold in a dreary apartment on Addison Street the morning after one Thanksgiving, scooping it out with a plastic spoon from never to be washed or returned Tupperware, drinking Bloody Marys with my buddy, Mel. (Note: This sorry incident occurred before the “guiding star of my existence,” my current and — sorry, ladies — final wife, Karen, came into my life.)
The word casserole, of course, comes from the French, meaning “Once we shove this in a preheated oven, we’ll have 30 extra minutes to drink.” I believe the green bean casserole is popular for several reasons:
First, like my ex-sister-in-law, it’s cheap and easy. (I guess I won’t be invited there this year.) The ingredients are few and inexpensive, and even men who are kitchen morons like myself can prepare one and have it turn out perfect every time. Women who do not worship the diagonally planked teakwood floor that Martha Stewart walks on can assemble it easily. Even the dreaded “surly” teenagers in your family can be assigned this task and feel a great sense of accomplishment when they are being praised by their exasperated loved ones for their culinary skills.
Second, it’s consistent. If the recipe’s directions and ingredients aren’t tinkered with, the casseroles could be lovingly made and presented Thanksgiving Day by Donald Trump in New York, Maggie Daley in Chicago, George W. Bush in Texas and Dennis Rodman in his love shack in Venice Beach, Calif., with exactly the same taste results.
Third, that topping! The superstar turkey would be a washed-up has-been without its supporting cast members, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and yams (with golden_not blackened_mini-marshmallow topping).
But the green bean casserole’s topping of french fried onions provides a satisfying crunch to the creamy wonderfulness beneath it and alongside the other cast members. It is the perfect topping for this dish. (The onions also are good straight out of the can with a cold beer when one’s popcorn and potato chips have been depleted.)
Last, it adapts easily to variations. Although I’m a firm believer in “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, just add more onion topping,” here are some other ideas:
Elvis it up. Let’s face it, adding crisp crumbled bacon to anything doesn’t hurt.
Bada bing, bada boom, bada bean it! For an Italian version similar to what I would imagine the “Sopranos” will be serving, substitute 4 cups of the long, Italian green beans for the regular green beans, and sprinkle 1 chopped small tomato with a tiny amount of dried oregano and crushed basil leaves with the remaining onions.
Dracula-proof it. Substitute a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom with Roasted Garlic instead of the Cream of Mushroom soup, and you’ll soon know if you have any vampires at the table.
Thar’s gold in them thar beans! Substitute a can of Campbell’s Golden Mushroom instead of the Cream of Mushroom soup. Leave out the soy sauce and add half of a chopped red pepper to the beans.
Make it cheesy! Add 1/2 cup of shredded Cheddar cheese with the beans. Omit the soy sauce and sprinkle 1/4 cup shredded cheese with the remaining onions.
After all these variations I became hungry, uh, curious, about what a professional chef would come up with, so I called Jerry Pisacreta of the restaurant 437 Rush. Pisacreta has lived in Chicago for the past three years after gigs in New York City as executive chef for the executive dining rooms of Newsweek magazine and the Philip Morris Co. He also was executive chef at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.
I asked him if he would “fancy-schmancy” the old classic up. He agreed and produced a knock-your-socks-and-Pilgrim-hat-off version.
Whatever green bean casserole you decide to make or bring to your family gathering, we wish you a Happy “M’m! M’m Good!” Thanksgiving!
Chef Jerry’s wild mushroom and haricot vert casserole with leek topping
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
3 cups assorted wild mushrooms (such as morels, porcini, oyster or shiitake)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter
2 1/2 tablespoons sherry
2 1/2 tablespoons brandy
1 cup whipping cream
Salt and pepper
1 pound of blanched haricots vert (thin French green beans) (see Note)
1 leek (white part only, julienned 2-inches by 1/8-inch)
1 cup buttermilk
Flour for dusting
Canola oil for frying
- Clean mushrooms, discard stems, cut into 1-inch wedges.
- Heat oil in a small pan. Add mushrooms, saute until they release their liquids. Add shallots, garlic and thyme. Saute in butter until lightly brown. Deglaze with the sherry and brandy.
- Add cream and allow to reduce by a quarter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add beans to pan. Toss to coat.
- Transfer mixture to 1 1/2 quart casserole dish. Bake in a 350-degree oven until the beans are fork-tender, about 45 minutes.
- Prepare topping: Toss leeks in buttermilk. Drain well. Toss leeks in flour, keeping the pieces separate. Fry leeks in 1 inch of canola oil until golden. Drain on paper towel. Sprinkle leeks on top of casserole when it comes out of the oven.
Note: If really fresh haricots vert are not available, use fresh green beans, thinly sliced lengthwise. You’ll have about 3 cups of beans. Long beans may be difficult to measure by the cup, so if you don’t have a kitchen scale, weigh the beans at your produce department. Simply buy them in 1-pound batches.
From chef Jerry Pisacreta of 437 Rush restaurant
Nutrition Information (per serving) Calories: 462 From fat: 340 Percentages of daily value based on 2,000-calorie diet.
Total fat 38g 58% Saturated fat 20g 100% Cholesterol 100mg 33% Sodium 110mg 5%
Carbohydrate 20g 7% Dietary fiber 3g 13% Sugars 10g
Vitamin A 44% Vitamin C 27% Calcium 19% Iron 13%
Campbell’s green bean casserole
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
1 (10 3/4-ounce) can Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom or 98 percent Fat Free Cream of Mushroom Soup
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon soy sauce
4 cups cooked cut green beans (see Note)
1 1/3 cups French’s French Fried Onions
- Mix soup, milk, soy sauce, pepper, beans and 2/3 cup onions in a 1 1/2-quart casserole.
- Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 25 minutes or until hot. Stir, then sprinkle with remaining onions. Bake 5 minutes.
Note: Use 1 bag (16- to 20-ounce) frozen green beans, 2 packages (9 ounces each) frozen green beans, 2 cans (about 16 ounces each) green beans or about 1 1/2 pounds fresh green beans for this recipe.
Nutrition Information (per serving) Calories: 204 From fat: 110 Percentages of daily value based on 2,000-calorie diet.
Total fat 12g 19% Saturated fat 4g 20% Cholesterol 3mg 1% Sodium 596mg 25%
Carbohydrate 21g 7% Dietary fiber 3g 11% Sugars 3g
Vitamin A 6% Vitamin C 14% Calcium 9% Iron 8%
Bill Linden is a Chicago-based writer.