Dorcas Reilly, the woman who gave the world—more specifically, the Midwest—the green bean casserole, has died at the age of 92.
The Associated Press reported that Reilly died of Alzheimer’s disease on October 15. The news service is intimately connected to the story of the dish—Reilly was working as a Campbell Soup kitchen supervisor in 1955 when she whipped together the dish for specifically an Associated Press feature. The History Channel’s website has some backstory:
In numerous interviews Reilly gave years later about the invention of the casserole, she professed to not remember exactly how she came up with that specific dish. Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom variety had been around since 1934. It was widely used as casserole filler in the Midwest, popping up in enough Minnesotan hotdish recipes that it was sometimes referred to as “Lutheran binder.” But no one thought to add frozen green beans to the mix until Reilly came along. The fried onions on top were an easy way to add texture and brighten the color of a grey-green dish, and to add a certain festive touch to the proceedings.
The casserole is now particularly associated with the Midwest, All Things Considered wrote in a piece on the dish around Thanksgiving 2015:
“Green Bean Casserole in the Midwest seems to be, in many contexts, an unintentional performance of identity, but at other times a very purposeful expression of local identity,” says Lucy Long, a folklorist, Bowling Green State University research associate and director of the nonprofit Center for Food and Culture.
Long, originally from the South, moved to Ohio 30 years ago and began noticing that the dish appeared on most Thanksgiving menus — crossing ethnic, religious and socioeconomic differences. She reported her findings in a 2007 academic paper, “Green Bean Casserole and Midwestern Identity: A Regional Foodways Aesthetic and Ethos.”
Green Bean Casserole is part of the Midwest’s “culinary universe,” Long wrote, reflecting industrial agriculture, the bland food of our European ancestors and a fear of Mother Nature.
But while the casserole was Reilly’s most famous creation—Campbell’s said it was the most popular their kitchen ever produced—she assisted on many, many others, including “a tomato soup meatloaf, a tuna noodle casserole and Sloppy Joe-like ‘souperburgers.’” That’s because like so many food companies, recipes and cookbook pamphlets have long been a big part of Campbell’s marketing strategy, particularly in the midcentury. In fact, their Cooking With Soup is one of the quietly iconic food texts of the 20th century, and it’s probably responsible for several of the allegedly “old-fashioned” “family” recipes floating around.
Basically, Dorcas was probably the most plagiarized woman on earth.