My Ohio: Unnatural Selection
A vegetable purist ponders how green bean casserole ended up on our Thanksgiving tables.
Picture this: the first Thanksgiving dinner, a majestic autumn day in 1621. Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans sit down together for a harvest feast. The colorful leaves on the trees surround them like a million flickering candle flames.
The crisp air is filled with the scent of wood smoke and good things simmering on the fire. The tables are laden with venison, corn bread, baked squash, and roasted goose stuffed with onions, herbs and chestnuts.
Just as everyone is about to dig in, a Pilgrim woman calls out: “Wait!”
She emerges in their midst bearing a steaming bowl. Inside, there is a green vegetative mass bathed in gray goo and topped with dry onions of a hue not seen in nature.
“What is this?” asks one of the Wampanoag.
“Green bean casserole!” she answers.
The generous Native Americans who taught the colonists how to fish, hunt and cultivate vegetables would have been stunned by this outrage against the tender, nutritious, delectable green bean — and rightly so.
There would have been words, possibly a food fight. The Wampanoag would have taken their feast and gone home. The first Thanksgiving would have been the last. No Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. No NFL games. No Black Friday sales. No leftovers. Thankfully for all of us, history did not unfold like that.
Green bean casserole didn’t arrive on our tables until 1955, invented by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist with the Campbell Soup Co. Her merger of mushroom soup and canned green beans was based on the fact that both main ingredients were staples in most kitchen pantries in America. Mix them up, add milk, seasoning and some french-fried onions, and there you have it.
Give Reilly credit for resourcefulness — and for success. Last year, “Good Morning America” named green bean casserole the country’s most popular Thanksgiving side dish. It’ll be served on an estimated 40 million dinner tables this Turkey Day.
But green bean casserole can be divisive. It tends to evoke strong feelings on one side or the other. I am a vegetable purist who believes it is impossible to improve upon sweet corn or asparagus or potatoes or green beans — except perhaps by the addition of a pat of butter.
Of course, this only encourages my green-bean-casserole-loving family members to make a Tony Award-worthy production of bringing the dish into our house for Thanksgiving dinner and carefully placing it at my end of the table so they can ask me to pass it down with exaggerated cheerfulness in their voices.
In Ohio, we are blessed to live in the garden basket of America. Even in November, there still is a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables available for the Thanksgiving menu. Visit your local farm market and you are likely to find apples, crisp greens, cauliflower, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, peas, carrots, broccoli and more. Maybe your freezer or pantry shelves are lucky enough to hold containers of green beans planted, nurtured, picked and preserved by your own hand from your own garden.
When it comes to green beans at Thanksgiving, I prefer to picture this: a majestic autumn day with friends and family gathered around a table piled with roasted turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
The candles on the table flicker with all the reds, oranges and yellows of the falling leaves outside the dining room window. Just as everyone is about to dig in, a man calls out from the kitchen: “Wait!”
He emerges in their midst bearing a steaming bowl. Inside, slender, succulent ... green beans — bathed in sweet butter the way nature intended.
Trust me, pilgrim. You will be thankful.
John Gladden is an Ohio Magazine contributing writer based in Seville. His column collection, How to Elevate a Cow, is available from woosterbook.com.