Green bean casserole—the true story!

Just say “green bean casserole” and almost every American will know what you’re talking about: canned green beans mixed with canned cream of mushroom soup topped with canned french-fried onion rings. Oh you can get fancier versions, like those using fresh green beans and fresh mushrooms, but this is the Real Thing.

Green bean casserole was one of the first recipes I ever learned too make, in seventh-grade cooking class. You couldn’t get much easier than opening a can of green beans, opening a can of mushroom soup, mixing the two with a little milk, then opening another can with the onion rings to top it off.

So I was fascinated to learn that this recipe was popularized by a Jewish woman, Cecily Brownstone. Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes and Customs for Today’s Kitchen, wrote about the “green bean queen” recently in an article in the online magazine Tablet. With her permission, I’m reprinting a few paragraphs here. You can read the rest of the article online.

With an ingredient list dominated by fat and convenience products, green bean casserole sounds like it emerged from the dog-eared depths of a 1950s Midwestern church cookbook. But the recipe actually landed on the American table via an unlikely source: a Jewish, Canadian-born, New York transplant named Cecily Brownstone.

From 1947 to 1986, Brownstone was the food editor for the Associated Press. For almost 40 years, her writing, and the pieces she commissioned, were among the most widely syndicated stories in the country. That includes a piece she wrote in 1955 about a press dinner she attended at citrus magnate John Snively Jr.’s Florida home. During the meal, a green bean dish caught the enthusiastic attention of the table—enough so that Snively’s wife shared that she had recently served the same dish, to similar acclaim, to the visiting shah and queen of Iran. The queen, Mrs. Snively said, had asked the butler which ingredients each dish contained before taking a bite. She did it so frequently that the butler eventually lost his patience and, when she inquired about the casserole, he allegedly snapped back, “Listen, lady, it’s just beans and stuff.”

Brownstone knew a compelling story when she heard one, and set out to write an article about the queen and her green beans. She just needed a recipe to go with it. Variations of green bean casseroles—some studded with chopped hot dogs, others topped, cobbler-style, with biscuit dough—dated back to the 1930s, when Depression-era cooks found ways to stretch limited ingredients to feed their families. But Brownstone wanted to capture the magic of the dish Mrs. Snively had served. As was common at the time, she called up a food manufacturer, in this case Campbell’s Soup Co., to help develop a recipe that would appear in newspapers across America. And so the modern green bean casserole, in all of its soupy, crunchy-topped glory, was born.