Sense and Nonsense: Keep green bean casserole on the holiday table

By Lynda Hollenbeck

Thanksgiving has come and gone and just about everyone I know enjoyed food, fun and fellowship, as dear Thelma Crotts would describe an occasion.
Fort those who don't know Mrs. Crotts, I'll explain. She was the principal at Angie Grant Elementary School for many years. My son Allen was one of her pets, and he naturally adored her.
I never heard her describe any social occasion without including the word "fellowship." It probably resulted from her many years as a preacher's wife. We church folks do a lot of "fellowshipping."
This past holiday included a slight change for my bunch.
For several reasons, I didn't make my usual green bean casserole. There was plenty of food, but the holiday seemed to be lacking without it. Don't think I'll do that again.
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. By not serving it this year, I caused bad feelings among some members of my family.
I don't remember when I first ate the casserole and certainly not the first time I prepared it. But I didn't realize until recently that it's considered a tradition for holiday meals in 30 million households.
The Campbell's Soup people reportedly created the dish in the 1950s, using ingredients they say are found in most people's kitchens.
That in itself 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 my late husband 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 one.
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. Try it sometime and you might agree.
According to the cooking columnist, others do this, too, ostensibly 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, this is kind of an oddball dish in the first place 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 really good.
Some people add cheese, which sounds like it would e good to me. I may try it in the near future.
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 standpoint, the dish certainly has been a boon to the Campbell folks. 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.
According to a 1993 survey, 35 percent of grocery shoppers said they used recipes on food packages at least once a month.
I always wonder about these survey percentages. Never in my whole life have I ever been asked whether I was doing whatever it was that was being counted. How is the information obtained, I wonder.
According to the Campbell's website, the company a few years ago contacted women in Milwaukee to talk about the dish. Older women reportedly said it's so easy to make that even young kitchen novices or the family's worst cooks can't mess it up. (Maybe that's 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. She noted that she planned to concoct 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.
Theyturned out to be the best part of the meal.
Could there be a hidden Julia Child lurking in me somewhere?

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of the Courier.