If you’ve ever gone to a big family gathering for Thanksgiving you’ve almost certainly eaten green bean casserole at least once.
There are a lot of different versions of green bean casserole out there, but they all have their roots in a single origin, though not one that a lot of people know.
Like a lot of popular recipes, easy to make, and at least relatively affordable, green bean casserole spread by word of mouth. Lots of people have claimed that they have a secret recipe version of green bean casserole. And, at this point, plenty of people grew up making green bean casserole the way they learned from their parents, and so don’t have any direct link to the origins of the dish.
Whether you love it or hate it, green bean casserole has an important role to play in US culture, the history of Thanksgiving, and even the origins of some of the most popular and most affordable foods created in this country.
Where Does Green Bean Casserole Come From?
To learn where green bean casserole comes from, there’s some background you need to know first.
But before we get into the backstory, the quick answer to this question is that green bean casserole was first created in 1955, which means that it’s almost 70 years old now! It was first created by a woman named Dorcas Rielly.
You might not have heard of Dorcas before, but chances are she had a huge impact on your life if you grew up in the United States. We’ll talk about that too, don’t worry.
But why did Dorcas Rielly create Green Bean Casserole in the first place, and how did her dish become so common and a staple on Thanksgiving tables all across the country?
Dorcas Reilley And The Origins Of Green Bean Casserole
The first thing you need to know about Dorcas Reilley and how she created Green Bean Casserole is that she was a full-time Campbells employee. Yes, that Campbells.
She worked for Campbell's Soup Company, and was one of the first people ever involved in the Campbells Test Kitchen.
Test Kitchens today might be better known for things like America's Test Kitchen, the people behind Cook's Illustrated, and the kitchen that first launched Alton Brown to fame as both a chef and a food nerd. But back in the origins of the Campbells Test Kitchen, the goal was not only innovating new soups that could be safely concentrated and canned into shelf-stable and affordable meals for long-term storage.
The other goal of Campbell's Test Kitchen was to find new recipes that called for Campbell's soups!
Recipes As Marketing: Retro American Cooking – Great and Terrible
If you’re a fan of Dylan B. Hollis’s cookbook or cooking TikTok you’re probably already familiar with retro recipes. But for anyone who hasn’t fallen into the retro baking rabbit hole, there’s an important piece of trivia you need to put into this story today.
A lot of companies in the 20th century (that's the 1900s if our century naming conventions weren't confusing enough) were looking to create a new market for their cooking products, but they were facing a lot of challenges getting people, especially women, and mothers, to buy their products.
Up until that point, most groceries were fresh produce, meats, dairy products, and other ingredients, rather than the pre-packaged and processed foods we’re used to today. Even people who didn’t have time to cook normally bought pre-made food from restaurants, food stalls, and bakeries more than they bought ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals from grocery stores.
Even canned goods, familiar as they were, were more likely made at home according to a family or canning company recipe. But as food processing got easier to do, transportation for finished food became more affordable, and food processing got more varied and affordable, companies needed to create demand for their products.
Crisco is famous for making cookbooks that featured Crisco as an ingredient in every recipe.
That wasn’t because Crisco was trying to be helpful to their consumers. It was because Crisco needed to convince consumers that their product was worth using.
Lots of other companies, including Campbells, did the same thing. They took their processed foods and figured out recipes that called for their product as one of the core ingredients.
In comes the need for test kitchens in the United States.
Companies like Campbells Soup Company needed people to come up with delicious recipes that called for their canned soups.
The goal was to get people used to using the product as an ingredient, which would make consumers more open to buying Campbell's soups as an easy way to make soup.
Even if some consumers never switched from buying Campbells as an ingredient to buying Campbells as a whole mood, more demand for their soups as ingredients would still drive business.
But, if you’re already familiar with retro cooking and baking, you’re probably already thinking of the main problem with this kind of marketing: coming up with actually delicious recipes.
If you’ve ever had to raid your pantry to come up with a meal last minute, and made from whatever you had on hand at the time, you’ve probably had at least a few meals that didn’t actually taste that good.
Or maybe you’ve been eating a lot of someone’s cooking that they don’t really know how to cook things the way you like them.
Either way, almost all of us have eaten things we wouldn’t eat again.
When companies are using free recipes, either printed on the side of their products or released in cookbooks, they couldn’t afford to release a bunch of bad, bland, or overly difficult recipes. Any of those problems would have meant fewer customers, and a lot fewer people buying the products the recipes were meant to sell.
In comes Dorcas Reilley, in Camden New Jersey, creating recipes for Campbells, and accidentally starting a Thanksgiving tradition that would grow in popularity and outlive the creator.
Green Bean Bake – The Original Green Bean Casserole Recipe
The first iteration of Green Bean Casserole wasn’t called Green Bean Casserole.
When Dorcas first created the recipe she called it Green Bean Bake.
There were a lot of things to love about Green Bean Bake. For one thing, it was a good way to get people to eat more vegetables and green things. It also called for only 6 simple ingredients that were relatively easy to get and could be completely shelf-stable if you wanted them to be.
To this day, the recipe still calls for Dorcas’s same six simple ingredients:
- Canned or Fresh green beans
- Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup
- Soy Sauce
- Black Pepper
- French-Fried Onions
If you opted for canned green beans, especially during the time when a lot of people in the United States were growing and then canning their own green beans, everything was readily available, affordable, and switching fresh milk for dried milk (a common substitution) meant that everything was shelf-stable too.
That meant that this was affordable, easy to make, and tasty enough to get everyone at the dinner table eating at least a little of their vegetables.
But, you might be surprised by one more fact about Green Bean Casserole:
Was Green Bean Casserole Always A Thanksgiving Dish?
When Dorcas Reilley first created Green Bean Casserole, she wasn’t thinking of it as a Thanksgiving recipe.
Why would she want her recipe to be something people only made once a year?
Remember that Dorcas was creating versatile recipes for Campbell's Soup Company, and the reason that she and other test kitchen employees were there was to create recipes that would drive demand and create sales for the company.
Green Bean Bake was originally an everyday side dish that you would enjoy any time of year. Over time though, a lot of people started saving Green Bean Casserole for the holiday season, so that it could be one of the special dishes that you don't really get any other time of year.
Of course, some people do eat Green Bean Casserole year-round, but if Campbells stats about the recipe are anything to go by, most people eat it on Thanksgiving.
Did You Know? Interesting Facts About Green Bean Casserole:
According to Campbell's Soup Company, the online version of the Green Bean Casserole recipe gets 4 million views on average every single Thanksgiving in the United States.
An estimated 20 million Thanksgiving dinners feature at least one recipe’s worth of Green Bean Casserole.
Thanksgiving looked a lot different before 1960, and Green Bean Casserole wasn’t a common part of the meal. What changed? 1960 was the year Campbells first put the Green Bean Casserole recipe directly on the cream of mushroom soup label.
Why did that make people start eating Green Bean Casserole for Thanksgiving? We may never know the real reason, but anyone who does potluck Thanksgiving might have a guess. The simple recipe and common ingredients make Green Bean Casserole an easy dish to make when you’re scrambling for something to bring to the potluck last minute. It’s also an easy filler dish for when you have some unexpected guests on Thanksgiving and need a few more delicious calories to fill those extra plates!
Lastly, Campbells Soup Company reports that fully 50% of their cream of mushroom soups happen from November to January most years!
So this Thanksgiving, as you’re sitting around the table looking for more things to talk about, maybe these Green Bean Casserole facts will help inspire some conversation!