The Drexel History Behind a Beloved Thanksgiving Side Dish

A green bean casserole made with fried onions and sprinkled cheese. Photo courtesy Flickr user Phil King.
Green bean casserole made with fried onions and sprinkled cheese. Photo courtesy Flickr user Phil King.

This article is part of the DrexelNow “Faces of Drexel” series honoring Drexel’s history as part of the University-wide celebration of the 125th anniversary of Drexel’s founding in 1891.

The green bean casserole is a well-loved side dish that has had its place on the Thanksgiving table for over 60 years. And it’s all thanks to a Drexel alumna, Dorcas Reilly ’47, who came up with the recipe for the popular vegetable dish.

Reilly received a BS in home economics from Drexel’s College of Home Economics in 1947 and made American culinary history just eight years later. After graduation, she began working at the Campbell’s Soup Co. in a test kitchen where she and her colleagues tested and created recipes using Campbell’s Soup products. Reilly was tasked with developing nutritious and simple dishes that used 1950s pantry staples (all Campbell’s Soup brand, naturally).

It’s interesting to note that the green bean casserole was not created in 1955 as a specific Thanksgiving dish, but rather as a vegetable side dish recipe to give to an Associated Press reporter who was looking for a story. After testing recipes with corn, peas and lima beans, Reilly decided on a whim to mix Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup with green beans (figuring everyone liked green beans) and topped the mixture off with a crunchy onion topping.

Just like that, an instant classic was born.

Reilly’s recipe was soon printed on the labels of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup cans and featured in newspaper and magazine ads. It was a hit with American housewives looking for a cheap, healthy dish that was easy to make. Beyond hitting all those marks, the green bean casserole can be customized with whatever ingredients are on hand and can be prepared ahead and reheated before the big Thanksgiving dinner.

“I’m shocked, really,” said Reilly about the dish’s enduring popularity when she attended a special luncheon that was held in her honor on Drexel’s campus in 2012. She was awarded with Drexel’s Cultural Contribution Award and a $1,000 scholarship was set up in her name — and yes, the green bean casserole was served and Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup cans were used as centerpieces. 

Last year, during the green bean casserole's 60th anniversary, the dish was reportedly served in 30 million homes on Thanksgiving and its online recipe received 70 percent of traffic on the entire Campbell’s website. An estimated 25–30 percent of all of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup cans are sold in November.

Dorcas Reilly (née Dorcas Bates) in the 1947 Drexel Lexerd yearbook. Photo courtesy University Archives.

Based on the overwhelming popularity of the dish, Reilly donated the original (and now-yellowed) green bean casserole recipe card to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. Today, Reilly’s contribution to American cuisine and culture can be seen alongside other revolutionary and immortal inventions like Kevlar and Thomas Edison's light bulb. Other Drexel alums that have been inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame include Paul Baran ’49, who invented digital packet switching and was inducted in 2007, and Norman Joseph Woodland ‘47 and Bernard Silver ‘47, who invented the barcode and were inducted in 2011.

Reilly’s history-making determination and work ethic can be traced to her intensive training at Drexel. The University’s Home Economics program in 1947 was geared to provide an education in preparation for homemaking and to offer an education of professional women. While Reilly was a student at Drexel, the Home Economics Department changed from being the School of Home Economics (1922-1945) to the College of Home Economics (1945-1974).

Home economics had been a part of Drexel’s course offerings since the very beginning: the Department of Domestic Economy was one of the 11 original departments when Drexel was founded in 1891. Over the years, it became the Department of Domestic Science and Arts from 1894 to 1900; the Department of Domestic Science and the Department of Domestic Arts from 1900 to 1914; the School of Domestic Science and Arts from 1914 to 1922 and — after the changes listed in the previous paragraph — ultimately became the Nesbitt College of Design, Nutrition, Human Behavior and Home Economics from 1974 to 1985.

As home economics as a whole lost popularity in the latter half of the 20th century, Drexel eventually phased out its home economics course offerings and individual departments were absorbed into different areas of Drexel. Today, Drexel’s culinary history lives on through the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management.

Throughout all of this, however, the green bean casserole prevailed and has stood the test of time. Green bean casserole recipes exist for even the pickiest or most careful eater, whether it’s gluten-free, paleo, skinny, low-fat/carb/calorie — basically, you name it, there’s a green bean casserole for it. And it truly is all thanks to Drexel Dragon Dorcas Reilly.

You can view the classic green bean casserole recipe by Campbell’s Soup Co.