The inventor Dorcas Reilly died last month. In the great tradition of inventors, you’ve likely never heard of her, but she pioneered something very familiar. If you have ever experienced an American Thanksgiving meal, you’ve probably encountered her groundbreaking creation: green bean casserole.
1955 was a simpler time, a time when people would gladly make a casserole of just six ingredients: green beans, cream of mushroom soup, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and crunchy fried onions. Pop that in the oven for an hour and the result is my personal favorite holiday dish—a soft, creamy, rich concoction with textural variety from the onions and just enough green flavor to remind you it’s a vegetable. Modern tastes pooh-pooh things like canned beans and cream of anything soup in favor of fresh, organic, cage-free, non-GMO, Whole30-approved, no added preservatives ingredients, but modern tastes also tell us that kale tastes good. So there’s that. And if you’ve ever been so unlucky as to be served a “modernized” version of green bean casserole that calls for shallots and haricots-verts and wild mushrooms… I’m sorry.
Dorcas lived the most ordinary of baby boomer lives. She was born in New Jersey. She married a boy she went to high school with. She went to college, lived through two wars, and then worked for Campbell’s in the test kitchen. She left work to raise her children (named after herself and her husband), and then returned to Campbell’s for almost thirty more years once they’d grown up. She had grandchildren. She invented a dish that 20 million people assemble and eat at least once a year. You know. Regular stuff.
As a green bean casserole devotee, I was pleased and surprised by the amount of press Dorcas’ death got. Several different articles popped up in my daily news browse, and I even heard a blurb about her on NPR. I knew the casserole was beloved by many, hated by a few (ne’er-do-wells, all of them), and nostalgic for almost everyone, but the level of fame Dorcas had achieved was unexpected (particularly since we no longer enjoy her other famous creation, a spiced tomato soup cake).
But what surprised me most was the simple idea that someone could invent a food. How does one become recognized as a food inventor? Must you write down the recipe, as Dorcas did (her original is seen above), and then get it catalogued and displayed in a museum (hers is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame)? Do you trademark the name, like the inventor of the Cronut? What level of complexity constitutes a recipe? Who invented bread? Who invented poached eggs? Does it have to taste good? I’m guessing no one has ever mixed wasabi with cream cheese and spread it on a chocolate cake; if I write that down, do I get to be the inventor? An old boyfriend once made me a sandwich of an egg, avocado, peanut butter, and sriracha on an English muffin. He attributed it to a housemate of his, and I’ve passed the recipe on to many friends. Do recipes have an oral tradition?
All these questions aside, I like the story of Dorcas Reilly because she was just regular. She was no Julia Child or Ina Garten. She didn’t have a television show, and she didn’t post her beautifully styled food photos on Instagram. She just liked to cook, and she approached it with equal parts scientific interest (she tried lima beans, peas, and corn before settling on green beans) and desire to make food that was comforting, easy, and affordable. Oh, that we could all distill our jobs down to those simple sort of passions.
So this Thanksgiving, go crazy with your orange zest cranberry chutney, your gorgonzola and candied pecan spinach salad, your goat cheese mashed potatoes with fresh herbs. Or maybe you could even invent a dish of your own. But don’t forget about the humble green bean casserole. Whip up a batch to awaken nostalgia and bring a smile to the faces around your table. Or just bring it to my house.
Many thanks to this New York Times article for some details about Dorcas.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.