This isn’t exactly a recipe. There will be a recipe at the end of this page—go ahead and scroll down if you don’t trust me, I’ll wait. But I want to tell you about my grandmother’s green bean casserole, and it’s a dish for which I don’t exactly have a recipe. I make it every year, and every year it’s different; every year, I wish I could ask her a thing or two. She’s dead now. Her mind was almost entirely gone well before that day arrived. I didn’t start making it until after my chance to ask her about it had passed, so I’m working from memory, and every year I get both closer and farther away. It’s never the same, but it’s always the same, somehow. It makes me sad, but it tastes delicious.
That’s a lot of somber stuff for a “hey happy holidays here’s some comfort food” kind of piece, huh? Let’s start with something else then. My grandma, Phyllis, had a framed photo of her ass on the wall of her cabin. It was taken after she fell down some stairs. She was sore, but fine, and the next day, a brilliantly purple, absolutely massive bruise blossomed. That thing spanned a cheek and a half. She was wearing a pair of striped blue-and-white pants and a purple sweatshirt that said “She who must be obeyed” on the front. I know that because in another photo from the same day, she’s cheerfully flipping off the camera, one bird per hand.
Here’s another: Phyllis, many years before she actually developed the disease that would kill her, was told by a doctor that she was dying—of what, I don’t remember. She packed my mother and grandpa into a car and embarked on what can only be described as a YOLO road trip, in which she planned to do whatever she felt like, whenever the urge struck. One such impulse was to have a boozy milkshake with lunch while driving through the mountains in Colorado. The place they stopped only had Rocky Road ice cream, but they made it for her anyway, and an hour later, she ralphed into a Ziploc bag. What to do then? She didn’t want to litter, but she sure as shit did not want a bag of vomit in her car. And so, naturally, she tucked it into someone’s mailbox instead. Phyllis was an unfailingly kind, patient, and generous woman, but that was a dick move.
That’s a much better way to begin.
Phyllis once made peanut butter hamburgers that the whole family struggled through. She watched them grimace through each bite, though they tried to hide it; she was wounded until she took a bite herself, which she immediately spat out before grabbing all the plates and dumping them into the trash. She talked about those burgers for decades. A lifetime of wonderful meals, and that’s the one that came up most often. On its heels were her chicken and dumplings. Right behind that, in my mind at least, was the green bean casserole.
When I try to cook my grandma’s green bean casserole, I call on all my senses. She always worked off the recipe on the French’s can—now a French’s weirdly-shaped white plastic container, to be precise. That bright can (RIP) is clear as day in my mind, so that’s where I start, too. The other really clear memory is of water chestnuts, which I suspect was either my innovation or my mother’s. I remember the crunch. It’s also an ingredient I’m unlikely to forget, because I love water chestnuts. Once, as a kid, I asked for and was given multiple cans of water chestnuts for my birthday. But maybe they weren’t added because I love them. Maybe I love them because they were in this casserole.
In the years I’ve spent cooking this recipe, those are the two constants: everything in the French’s recipe (similar but not identical to the Campbell’s recipe, from which I cribbed the addition of soy sauce), and water chestnuts. Those are a lock. Honesty compels me to be really clear that everything else may or may not come from Phyllis. I think it does. Here goes: I remember really bright, crisp green beans, but I also remember cans of green beans, so I use both. I know she used cream of mushroom, but I also remember mushrooms dotting the top, so again, I use both, sautéing sliced button mushrooms and cut, steamed green beans in butter before adding them to the mix.
Something beyond the French’s onions and mushrooms topped the dish, but I’m very foggy on what that was. In the years I’ve been cooking it, I’ve mostly settled on my version: slivered almonds and flaked parmesan cheese. There was a bottle besides the soy sauce, which I think was probably Worcestershire, but that’s never quite fit. I include it sometimes, if it doesn’t look or feel right otherwise. I’ve thrown in extra French’s onions nearly every year; I’ve included sautéed or caramelized onions; I’ve minced garlic and throw it in the pan with the beans and mushrooms, and I’ve added horseradish from time to time. Some years it’s better. Some it’s worse. Once, it was a little too salty; on a few occasions, it’s bubbled over the edge of the dish, one too many additions prodding the casserole toward a state of open rebellion.
It’s never the same. That used to make me sad. Now, the best word I can use to describe the experience of making this casserole is “appropriate.” I can’t ask Phyllis about her casserole, and I can’t honestly say that every year it gets closer to correct. I’m not sure correct exists. For all I know, she changed it every year. She’s not around to tell me, but I know she’d appreciate the hustle. “If you can read, you can cook,” was her favorite maxim; she wanted me to love cooking as much as she loved feeding her family. I love cooking this dish. I care about it, and I know she’d love that.
She would also love that I wrote about her bruised-ass photo on the internet.
Dorcas Reilly, creator of the green bean casserole, died this year at 92. Alzheimer’s, like Phyllis. An Associated Press piece following her passing noted that Reilly, well aware that her dish was made year after year by countless families, “always kept the ingredients for the casserole on hand in her home—just in case someone asked her to whip one up.” That sounds a lot like Phyllis, actually. There’s also this, from the AP:
Reilly also noted whenever the company held recipe contests, she would typically see “homemade” variations of the soup-can recipe for the casserole.
“It would be Aunt Suzy’s or Grandma’s,” she said.
Here’s Phyllis’s green bean casserole, or my best version of it. Take what you like, change what you will, but trust me on the water chestnuts. Phyllis really knew what she was doing there.
Serves about 6 as a side dish
- 1 can (10 1/2 ounces) condensed cream of mushroom soup
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups green beans (ideally one 14 1/2 ounce can and roughly 3/4 cup fresh)
- 1 1/3 cups French’s Crispy Fried Onions, divided in half
- 1 cup sliced button mushrooms
- 1 can (8 oz.) water chestnuts, drained
- 1 tsp. soy sauce (optional: sub Worcestershire sauce)
- Generous handful slivered almonds (optional)
- Flaked parmesan to cover the top (as much as you want, it’s cheese, go nuts)
- 1 1/2 Tbsp. butter
Steam fresh green beans. Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Cook mushrooms and beans until the mushrooms are lightly browned, then reduce heat and simmer until the mushrooms are tender. Set aside a few beans and mushrooms. Combine soup, milk, pepper, soy sauce, water chestnuts, canned beans (if using), and half the onions in a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish. Stir in fresh beans and mushrooms. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 to 30 minutes or until hot.
Remove casserole from oven. Top with remaining onions, almonds, and the mushrooms and green beans set aside earlier. Cover all that with as much flaked parmesan as you want, especially if you’re a little bit sad about your grandma. Return to oven and bake 7 to 12 minutes, until things start to look nice and golden brown.
Whatever works, take notes, or you’ll end up experimenting every year of your adult life and won’t remember that horseradish just doesn’t work that well until you try it a second time.