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Eating Christmas: Dorcas B. Reilly, a little-known holiday hero

These past few days, The Show has taken you around the globe with holiday stories from Russia, Uruguay and the Philippines. The final Eating Christmas essay for the season comes back home. Novelist and English professor Matt Bell deconstructs an American holiday classic — the green bean casserole.

November has come and gone and December is in full swing, so there's a good chance you've recently had a scoop or two of green bean casserole, my personal favorite holiday side dish and one simultaneously served in 30 million American homes just on Thanksgiving each year.

Ideally, it comes out of the oven as a bubbling gray-white morass of green beans, undefined mushrooms, fried onions gone soft in thick soup, seasoned with so much salt and topped with a crackling crust of more fried onions. Since moving to Arizona 10 years ago, I've made my own Thanksgiving dinners in my own way, but when I get around to the green bean casserole, I still make it according to "my mom's recipe," using these ingredients:

  • 1 can (10 ¾ ounces) Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • dash of black pepper
  • 4 cups of cooked cut green beans
  • 1 1/3 cups French’s fried onions

My recipe is a transcription of the handwritten index card my mom keeps in the battered binder safeguarding family recipes "passed down through the generations." This index card — which I've seen my mom carefully, reverently extract from its plastic sleeve dozens of times — turns out to be exactly what's been printed on every Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup can for many decades, since shortly after "my mom's recipe" was invented by Dorcas B. Reilly, my own personal holiday hero.
Who was Dorcas B. Reilly? Only the most memorable of the pioneering employees hired in the 1950s by the Campbell's home economics department, a test kitchen where Reilly invented hundreds of recipes intended to teach America how to cook with Campbell's industrial food products, including "tomato soup meatloaf," an early tuna-noodle casserole, "porcupine meatballs," and the "Sloppy Joe Souperburger," whatever that is.

Reilly passed away in 2018 at the age of 92, but her "Green Bean Bake" recipe card is still around, housed now at the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where it belongs. This card reveals that Reilly took at least eight tries to arrive at her (and my mom's) final recipe, which, once refined to its essence, requires minimal prep time and even less skill, uses simple, easy to source ingredients, and comes out exactly the same every time, as long as you follow the instructions.

In my mind, the consistency of green bean casserole is key to its goodness — but not everyone follows directions well. And sometimes those people are in the family you marry into.

One long-ago Thanksgiving, my nutritionist sister-in-law brought over a “healthy” green bean casserole, made with fresh green beans instead of canned, topped with some kind of homemade crunch instead of French's fried onions. It was so green. It was so bright. It was so wrong.

I thought I'd escaped the chance for such traumas by moving to Arizona, but this year — my first Michigan Thanksgiving in a decade — I was shocked to learn my mother-in-law never buys soy sauce in the bottle.

"What else would I use it for, besides this?" she asked, as she retrieved a battered Chinese takeout soy sauce packet from her kitchen junk drawer, ripped it at the perforation, and shook its unmeasured contents into her casserole dish, which looks exactly like my casserole dish, which probably looks exactly like your casserole dish.

"Close enough," my mother-in-law proclaimed, as I did my best not to faint in her kitchen.

Luckily, I had a backup Thanksgiving meal to attend the next day. There, the main courses were decidedly non-traditional — fettuccine Alfredo and chicken parmigiana, cooked by me and my brother — but right beside these holiday sacrileges sat a hot dish of bubbling, crispy green bean casserole, made just the way my mom always has, because this time, my mom was the one who made it.

My mom, with a little assist from Dorcas B. Reilly.

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