Every Thanksgiving I brace myself for the inevitable: green bean casserole.
Green bean casserole, invented by Campbell’s Soup in 1955, is adored by literally millions of Americans. I am not in this group. Our family, led by mother’s disdain for opening a can of creamed mushroom soup and dumping it on vegetables, ate peas and pearl onions instead.
Usually I allow myself an air of historic superiority as I dismiss green bean casserole when it is offered – surely the original Thanksgiving did not include a dish from a can.
But this year I may soften my stance a bit. I’ve been reading an informative and insightful cookbook, “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie” by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation.
You are probably well aware that no one knows for certain what was exactly shared and consumed at that first day of thanksgiving in 1621 sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9 among the native Wampanoag People of Cape Cod and the settling English. The only eye-witness account of that day, written by colonist Edward Wilson to a friend back home refers to “fowl” and “deer.” And it wasn’t even really Thanksgiving. It was an annual harvest party.
The authors of “Giving Thanks” go on to explain how this harvest party evolved into the full-blown American tradition it is today. It is a fascinating read and will arm you with plenty of trivia to impress your friends and relatives around the dinner table, too stuffed to escape your self-indulgent soliloquy of facts they could care less about.
For instance, Abraham Lincoln may have declared the last Thursday of November as the annual date for our national holiday, but did you know this was largely because of the hard campaigning of the “Godey’s Lady’s Book” editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale? Ms. Hale was relentless in her pursuit to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday and annually wrote letters for 16 years to the White House, all state governors, and each member of Congress extolling the virtues of a meal that brought people together to express gratitude. When Lincoln finally relented with his proclamation in 1863, Southerners refused to acknowledge the “Yankee” holiday.
But the Southerners eventually changed and perhaps I will, too, about green bean casserole. Here’s why: At the back of “Giving Thanks” is an incredibly eclectic array of “traditional” Thanksgiving dishes. There is everything from “Oyster Stuffing” to “Chinese American Rice Dressing” to “Finnish Turnip Casserole” to “Puerto Rican Roast Pork Shoulder.” And there is even a recipe for “Green Bean Casserole.”
Thanksgiving dishes have evolved and mixed and borrowed just like the unique peoples who have come together and adapted in their efforts to build a free democracy.
So, if a glob of canned soup in a Thanksgiving dish is really a nod to the convenient foods that temporarily freed mid-20th century American women everywhere so they could devote their thoughts and energies beyond the kitchen – for better or worse – then I concede. Green bean casserole has its proper place in the history of American Thanksgiving.
But I’ll need to change the recipe’s name – just to satisfy my preference for historical context. Please pass me the peas and pearl onions.
Feminist Green Bean Casserole
Adapted from “Giving Thanks”
1 10-3/4-ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 16-ounce cans French-cut green beans, drained or 2 16-ounce packages frozen French-cut green beans, cooked and drained
1 2.8-ounce can French’s Fried Onions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a medium bowl, whisk the condensed soup, milk, soy sauce, and pepper until smooth. Stir in the beans and half of the onions.
Pour mixture into a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish. Bake for 25 minutes, uncovered until the mixture is hot and bubbling.
Stir well, top with the remaining onions, and bake for 5 minutes more, or until the onion topping is nicely browned.
[Editor's note: This blog post appears on the following Patches: Jamaica Plain, Sudbury, Back Bay, South End, Waltham and Brookline.]