In the early to mid-20th century, cooking schools and cookbook authors encouraged the serving of red or green foods for Christmas. It was the heyday of maraschino cherries and lurid Jell-O molds.
In 1955, a new green classic was created at the Campbell Soup Company. Dorcas Reilly, a home economist at the company’s test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey, was asked to create a dish utilizing condensed cream of mushroom soup.
Reilly decided to include frozen green beans—a staple in many American homes at the time, thanks to Clarence Birdseye, who made frozen foods widely available in the 1930s. Birdseye enticed grocery stores to carry his “frosted foods” by offering free freezers, and he successfully marketed frozen vegetables as a better alternative to canned, according to the book "Giving Thanks" by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and the Plimoth Plantation.
Rolled ham and celery salt were part of Reilly’s early experiments. Her notes indicated that somebody named “EH would like onions in basic recipe,” and that one attempt needed “more pep.” The ultimate casserole, called the Green Bean Bake, had six ingredients: cream of mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions.
It was considered a perfect dish for holiday entertaining because it was simple, inexpensive, and could easily be made ahead of time. (It was known as a “jiffy casserole” because it went from one bowl to one pan.) “Casseroles bound with white sauces became especially prevalent during the Depression as a way of stretching ingredients,” said Cathy Kaufman, president of the Culinary Historians of New York. “Luxurious versions are colonial, but it does seem that the convenience of frozen green beans brought this recipe to the forefront in that age of convenience cookery.”
Fresh green beans are a definite upgrade for some, but even in an era of farmers’ markets and artisanal foods, Campbell’s estimates that 30 percent of the cream of mushroom soup sold in the United States still goes into making this nostalgic retro casserole. Although the classic recipe is considered sacrosanct by many families, and has appeared often on the soup can labels since 1963, Campbell's has created almost a dozen modern variations include one with Dijon mustard and a Green Bean Casserole Italiano.
Dorcas Reilly, who passed away this month, wrote the original recipe on an 8 x 11 card, and on November 19, 2002, she was present when Campbell’s donated a copy for the archives of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Ohio, followed by a Thanksgiving meal featuring the casserole. (The recipe shares this honor with Edison's light bulb.)
Watch Sarah Carey make our favorite take on green bean casserole—because bacon makes everything better: