My Love-Hate Relationship with Green Bean Casserole

How a can of soup architectured Thanksgiving’s most-popular side dish.

By: Eric Kim


Photo by: Chris Court

Chris Court

Though I come from a Korean-immigrant household (whose 13-year-old kids had to pick up the Thanksgiving slack because their parents had never roasted a bird or even used an oven a day in their lives), I did grow up, unfortunately, with that cold, unfeeling casserole from a can.

I’ve never been able to stomach it: that gungy mélange of random pantry ingredients thrown together in a Pyrex, unmistakably salty and plastic in taste.

I don’t know for sure how it came into our family's annual repertoire of mush. There was very little reason for any of us, even the first-generation Korean-Americans, to have ever heard of it. Food Network was just getting started in the early ’90s, and though I’m able to pinpoint where I first learned to roast a chicken or to bake chocolate chip cookies from scratch, green bean casserole came into our lives much earlier than the onset of food television. Even our mothers, unlike most Midwestern housewives in the latter half of the 20th century, had never heard of green bean casserole, or even of the one product that brought it — in a very official way as America’s affordable, casserole filler favorite — to our national consciousness: Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup.

The 1950s created an influx of recipe pamphlets, back in an age when heavy, expensive cookbooks, though prevalent and popular, were less affordable than the former, which companies like Campbell and Cuisinart churned out like candy bars.

These recipe pamphlets date back to an age when home economics was a thing (remember that class?). These “home economists,” who precede the recipe developers and food editors of today, had one job: to convince homemakers to cook cheap, convenient dishes that required the purchase of their company’s products.

Campbell’s test kitchen chef Dorcas Reilly concocted green bean casserole in 1955 with the aim of helping people use up ingredients they always had on hand. And ask any Midwesterner: You always have cream of mushroom soup on hand.

Hence, the birth of the GBC.

As Campbell’s greatest PR achievement to date (after Warhol’s seminal 1962 piece), green bean casserole not only made its way onto every Thanksgiving table in North America, but it gave the Midwest a sense of local identity as well, which has, in many ways, defined much of American home cooking. It is arguably one of the most distinguishable hotdishes to date, and one of the only ones that is, quintessentially, Thanksgiving.

When I think back on it, it was probably Aunt Joy who first brought it to Thanksgiving one year, which is apt because she was always the worst cook (one of the greatest lures of green bean casserole is that it doesn’t require much dexterity in the culinary sense). Having immigrated to the United States to become a nurse, she never had time to learn to cook because she was always working; perhaps more importantly, she was the first person in our family to date a non-Korean, Uncle Louis, from whom, I’ve just learned, she got the recipe in the late ’80s.

It must’ve come from him. According to cousin lore, he got the recipe from his mother back in Minnesota, who got it from her mother, who — let’s be frank — probably got it from the back of a cream of mushroom soup can.

As I get older, having experienced so much more of the gustatory pleasures that life has to offer, having appreciated food from all walks of life, high and low, having read cookbooks cover to cover, realizing the cultural relevance of food as more than just mere fuel, but rather as personal history and national narrative in and of itself —

I still hate green bean casserole. So much.

But I do recognize its edifying significance for me and for my family as the single gateway dish that introduced all of us to American home cooking for the first time.

And if we consider that Thanksgiving, contrary to popular belief, is not just a memorial of the Pilgrims’ feast in 1621, but rather, more historically and more significantly, of Lincoln’s effort in 1863 to bring together two divisive states during the Civil War — over food, that great mediator — then I’m able to appreciate that green bean casserole is probably the one reason my family even found out about the holiday at all. And how it suddenly thrust them into the warm inner circle of American tradition, and a food tradition at that, meant that they were finally no longer on the outskirts of it.

And realizing this, “canned” no longer feels like an abomination.

What interests me most is that people think green bean casserole has fresher, more authentic origins: a French-style roux, or mushroomy béchamel, to start; home-fried shallots, which mimic the onions-from-a-can; even fresh green beans, the antithesis of the humble origins from which the original casserole spontaneously descended from the heavens as something a home cook could whip up with very little money and even less prep work.

In reality, it wasn’t until recently that chefs began to imprint their own ideologies on the American classic (which, for all intents and purposes, only dates back 62 years).

In The Joy of Cooking, for instance, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker’s two entries for green bean casserole look nothing like the canned version we know today. Rather, their first version calls for a pound of fresh, trimmed green beans and a significant pile of chopped onions, even paprika; the second version has a more interesting cream of tomato base with horseradish and Worcestershire sauce.

But as much as we food autocrats want to believe that there’s some Edenic, autochthonous prototype of our beloved green bean casserole, we should acknowledge here, once and for all, that the dish just happens to come from cans. And if anything, there’s some beauty in this, in its lasting lure on the Thanksgiving table as the one thing that brings us all together, culturally, historically, literally.

It’s what brought my family to America. And because it’s my brother’s favorite, and my father’s, and Uncle Louis’, it’s always on the table.

There’s nothing more authentic than that.

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