Chow Town

At Thanksgiving, green bean casserole is more than just vegetables and mushroom soup

Love it or hate it, Green Bean Casserole celebrated its 60th year at the holiday meal in 2015

Green Bean Casserole celebrated its 60th birthday in 2015. Loved by some, despised by others, this iconic concoction of canned green beans and cream of mushroom soup has become a common dish at the holiday meal.
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Green Bean Casserole celebrated its 60th birthday in 2015. Loved by some, despised by others, this iconic concoction of canned green beans and cream of mushroom soup has become a common dish at the holiday meal.

My sister, Lydia Schmidt, overachieved in everything she did - except for one little thing.

She was a loving and devoted daughter, sister, mother and friend. She was a compassionate boss.

She could make you weep when she sang in her clear soprano voice, and she was the undisputed beauty in my family.

But, forgive me for spilling the (green) beans, Lydia couldn’t cook worth a lick.

For our annual Christmas cookie baking day, where the women in the family and our friends whip up hundreds of baked treats, Lydia could be counted on to bring the wine. She was a willing set of extra hands who could crack an egg with the best of them.

How lucky she was to fall madly in a love with a cute guy who was also a creative cook.

Lydia Schmidt, the late sister of Kansas City Star writer Lisa Gutierrez.

I decided to out my sis when I heard that a 92-year-old woman named Dorcas Reilly died last month.

Reilly created the green bean casserole, that famous fusion of Campbell’s mushroom soup, green beans and crunchy fried onions that has graced millions — maybe trillions? — of Thanksgiving tables since the 1950s.

The dish is a must-have on Thanksgiving tables across the Midwest, Satellite Internet discovered recently when it scoured “the top-searched recipes in every food-related category on Google Trends last November,” it writes on its website.

Green bean casserole was the most-searched Thanksgiving recipe in the country’s wide midsection — Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, both Dakotas and Texas, too.

Campbell’s estimates at least 20 million American households will serve green bean casserole for Thanksgiving this year.

I think my sister knew that recipe by heart.

In our family, as I suspect happens in many, each of us has taken ownership of a Thanksgiving dish over the years. I make the mashed potatoes — silky Yukon Golds full of butter, milk, salt and lumps. (The lumps make them “rustic,” or at least that’s how it plays out in my head.)

My sister Lori contributes her calorie-free — kidding — crockpot corn made with cream cheese. Mom bakes the pumpkin pies. The person who hosts is usually stuck with, I mean blessed with, roasting the turkey. (I’ve actually volunteered for that duty in recent years after mastering “Semi-Homemade Cooking” queen Sandra Lee’s “Roasted Butter Herb Turkey” recipe. Try it.)

Lydia always brought the green bean casserole, made just the way Dorcas Reilly imagined it would be way back in the 1950s when she invented a quick-to-make side dish for busy women like my little sister, the mother of five children whose calendar was always full.

Reilly concocted what Campbell’s has titled “the mother of all comfort foods” by “simply combining two things most Americans had on hand in 1955: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup,” the Washington Post wrote when she died last month.

That kind of recipe had my sister’s name written all over it. I worried that I was being unkind to write this because, frankly, no one in my family cared that she couldn’t Pioneer-Woman-truss and wrestle a Thanksgiving turkey into the oven.

She could, though, make a mean batch of chili con queso in the crock pot. We counted on it for parties. She was a whiz with a block of Velveeta.

Lydia Schmidt

Her green bean casserole recipe came straight from the container of French’s Crispy Fried Onions. It is easy-peasy, just five ingredients mixed together — Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup, milk, black pepper, green beans and those fried onions, the “crunchy stuff.”

“Mom’s was soooo good she always let me put the crunchy stuff on top,” my niece and goddaughter, Mary, texted me about her mom’s green bean casserole, adding a heart emoji for emphasis.

Ahhh. Lydia knew what she was doing in the kitchen after all.

Her children love that casserole. But never once in all those years that my sister walked in with a pan full of green beans for Thanksgiving did I ever tell her that I don’t like green bean casserole.

To spare anyone’s feelings I would spoon a dollop onto my plate in case anyone was looking, but no one ever was.

We lost Lydia in May 2016. She had ovarian cancer. She was just 49. I think of her every … single … day.

Lydia Schmidt died in May 2016 of ovarian cancer.

That first Thanksgiving without her I finally confessed to our mother my dislike for green bean casserole. I wondered if there might exist a recipe I could love more, so I became one of those people Googling green bean casserole recipes at Thanksgiving. My search looked like this: “healthy green bean casserole.”

Yeah, right. What the heck was I thinking? Fresh beans, not canned, and no Campbell’s soup.

It bombed.

Does anyone in the family even remember that I served it? Kevin? Ron? Anyone? I have repressed the memory, too.

Like taking a pumpkin pie in the face I learned my lesson: Don’t tweak tradition, at least in my family.

If your family loves Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce — the kind that wiggles out of the can in the shape of the can — don’t go mucking it up with some photo-shoot version made with fresh cranberries. (Team Ocean Spray here.)

And just as I did for all those years, my niece Sarah, my sister’s youngest, didn’t tell me that my green bean casserole was yucky. At least not until I asked her about it a few days ago.

“The original is so much better,” Sarah texted me with a happy-face emoji.

Mama, and Dorcas Reilly, knew best.

In this Nov. 15, 2005 photo, Dorcas Reilly prepares Green Bean Casserole at the Campbell Soup Co. corporate kitchen in Camden, N.J. Reilly died on Oct. 15, 2018. She was Campbell’s kitchen supervisor in 1955 when she concocted the recipe for an Associated Press feature. It is the most popular recipe ever to come out of the corporate kitchen at Campbell Soup. Mel Evans Associated Press