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HOLLENBECK: Take away everything else, but keep the green beans coming

April 11, 2011

My kitchen successes can be counted on my two hands with a couple of digits to spare, but among them is the green bean casserole I’ve prepared for many, many years. There may be a glorious repast including traditional and exotic dishes, but if I don’t serve that casserole at Thanksgiving and Christmas, it causes bad feelings among some members of my family.

Since I have so few “success” stories related to cooking, I have to point that out every so often. As the daughter of one of the finest cooks who ever lived in Cotton Plant, it soothes my pride to get that into print every decade or so.
Interestingly, as far as I know, my mother never made the casserole. Her green beans were cooked “just right” — until they turned to an avocado shade and were seasoned perfectly, but never turned into the Campbell Coup Co. casserole standby.
And she never referred to them as “green” beans anyway; she cooked “string beans.” Always.
I don’t remember when I first ate the casserole and certainly not the first time I prepared it, but it’s considered a tradition for holiday meals in 30 million households. That’s apparent when you shop for Thanksgiving or Christmas meals. The ingredients won’t be in just their usual spots, but set up in special displays in several places in the store.
The Campbell’s Soup people reportedly created the dish in the 1950s, using ingredients they say are found in most people’s kitchens.That seems a little questionable because I don’t think most cupboards will include french-fried onion rings, an essential component of the dish. I really like the onion rings, but get them only when I’m planning to make the casserole.
There’s a reason for that. Eating one onion ring is like eating one potato chip or one cashew nut: Unless you’re super-human, it can’t be done. My will power goes out the window with the first taste and I can polish off half the can in short order.
My version of the casserole has gone to many Courier and church potlucks. The late Sam Hodges, Courier owner and publisher for many years, had never eaten it until he tried my offering and was mightily impressed. And a man in a church Ed pastored in Morrilton concluded that I was a really good cook because of this dish. I rode the green bean banner for quite a while after that incident.
A cooking columnist in another publication claims that water chestnuts were included in the original green bean recipe issued by the Campbell Kitchen. That sounds good to me, but I’ve never seen a recipe calling for them.
Once when I accidentally had only one can of cream of mushroom soup, another essential component of the casserole, I tried golden mushroom for the second can. I didn’t think it would hurt the dish and, serendipitously, it improved it.
According to the food columnist, others do this, too, to create what they call a “heartier mushroom flavor.” I’m not sure whether it’s actually heartier, but I think it looks and tastes better.
When you think about it, the green bean casserole is kind of an oddball dish because it involves multiple canned, processed goods and not a single fresh ingredient. It’s sodium-packed and, except for red meat, is probably as far away from heart-healthy as you can get.
The original recipe called for soy sauce and the addition of milk, but I forego both. I use the canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup, golden mushroom soup, the french-fried onion rings and that’s it. And I bake it until it’s thick, and crusty brown and, I think, really good.
Apparently the casserole is considered as much a Thanksgiving fixture as football and the Macy’s Parade.
Through some Internet perusal, I learned that Dorcas Reilly, a Campbell Soup kitchen supervisor in 1955, was the driving force behind the dish. But Reilly, now in her 80s, doesn’t take a lot of credit for it since it was among hundreds of recipes she helped create.
From a corporate viewpoint, it’s more memorable. The company estimates it sells $20 million worth of mushroom soup each year just to people following Reilly’s recipe or modifications of it.
The recipe reportedly was created for an Associated Press feature in 1955 and is still a fixture on soup can labels at Thanksgiving and on TV commercials that air during the holidays.
Some time back a survey was done in which Campbell’s personnel contacted women in Milwaukee to talk about the dish. Older women reportedly said the dish is so easy to make that even young kitchen novices or the family’s worst cooks can’t mess it up.
That’s probably why I can do it well.
Reilly said she always keeps the ingredients for the casserole on hand in her home just in case someone asks her to whip one up. On a recent Thanksgiving, she said her family would be getting a new variety – with carrots.
Since I love carrots, I’d probably like that updated version. I recently baked a chicken to which I added celery, an onion and an apple. Just because they were there, I threw a few carrots into the pan. They turned out to be the best part of the meal.
Could there be a Julia Child lurking in me somewhere?

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of the Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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