On Thanksgiving, vegetarians like me should politely deflect questions about why we don’t eat turkey and instead exaggerate our pleasure when meatless sides come around. Like travelers to exotic foreign lands, we should feel grateful for whatever’s strictly edible and put any higher-order choosiness on hold. So it’s with shame—and some trepidation over my future treatment by Thanksgiving hosts—that I make the following request: Please stop serving green beans! They may be a holiday staple, but there’s no place for them on the menu. No matter your talents, they wind up limp or waxy-tough. At best, they take on the flavor of whatever seasoning you happen to select.
I suspect that most families serve green beans to counteract the guilt that haunts all eating-oriented holidays. The host can rest easier knowing she’s done her part for health. And the mere presence of this greenery makes everyone feel better about stuffing themselves with fattening pies. But even if I’m wrong—even if many Americans truly enjoy this particular side— there’s another, more objective rationale for rescinding the green bean’s invitation to the Thanksgiving feast. For the most part, Thanksgiving fits with the ever-growing emphasis on seasonal fare. Cranberries, yams, and pumpkins are all autumnal ingredients that pass the Alice Waters/ Dan Barber freshness test. But green beans are a warm-weather crop, sensitive to cold and frost. They’re planted in the spring or summer and peak from July through October in the South and from August to September up North. So by the fourth Thursday in November they’re old—and ornery. Or as Slate contributor Sara Dickerman once put it, they’re haricots not-so verts.
And it’s not like green beans have history on their side. Although we don’t know much about early Thanksgiving dinners, there’s no evidence that our forebears ate green beans. According to the few descriptions that have survived, one 1784 menu cited by The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink mentions pigs, geese, turkeys, and sheep. By the early 19th century, two-course meals were common. The Oxford Companion lists as possible first courses roast turkey, chicken pie, ham, beef, sausage, and duck accompanied by sweet potatoes, yams, succotash, sweetbreads, turnips, and squash. Next: pies, tarts and the like. Still no green beans. The writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who led the campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, devotes a whole chapter to a Thanksgiving meal in her 1827 novel Northwood: A Tale of New England. Turkey, pumpkin, and cranberries are all in evidence. But no green beans.
This isn’t to say that green beans were wholly absent from the celebratory spread—just that they weren’t de rigueur. In 19th-century accounts of the Thanksgiving meal, the stringy little items do make the occasional appearance. The December 1891 edition of Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, for example, includes this menu description: “There were turkeys. … [T]here were mashed potatoes, and canned vegetables, peas and string beans and such things; of course, you couldn’t have parsnips and turnips then, —we depended a good deal on canned goods.” The form in which the Overland Monthly writer consumed his beans—in cans—likely explains how they migrated into an otherwise seasonal meal. Since green items aren’t easy to come by in late fall, families looked to canned goods. And by the late 19th century, green beans were readily available from commercial canners. Got that? Our ancestors started eating green beans on Thanksgiving because it’s possible to stuff them in an airtight container and forget about them until the apocalypse.
My guess is that we’ve got the Campbell Soup Company to thank for the limp bean’s promotion from occasional guest to bona fide Thanksgiving mainstay. As is fairly well-known, the Campbell test kitchen (under the leadership of Dorcas Reilly) invented the green bean casserole in 1955. This near-instant meal consists of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, fried onions, and—of course—canned green beans. Although Campbell did not initially market the recipe as a holiday special per se, it became one by the 1960s. Now we can’t get rid of it. This Thanksgiving, the soup giant estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of American families will prepare the green bean casserole.
I’m told there are as many staunch defenders of this corporate invention as of the Phaseolus vulgaris itself. Mine is not a casserole family. But a few weeks ago, I overcame my aversion long enough to give it a chance. With all due respect for the usually superb culinary skills of the Midwestern friend who prepared it for me, the green bean casserole was a mushy, revolting mess. (My favorite part was the salt and pepper sprinkled on top.) And I contend that many otherwise sane Americans cling to this monstrosity only out of nostalgia. For proof of the casserole’s objective nastiness, consider two lesser-known recipes that Ms. Reilly pioneered: a tomato soup meatloaf and a Sloppy Joe-like “souperburger.”
At a loss for why the dreaded green bean continues to appeal, I emailed the editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, Barbara Fairchild. She conceded that the peak season for green beans ends in October but argued that it’s possible to obtain them fresh year-round. The magazine, she said, always includes a green bean recipe in its Thanksgiving issue (this year with lemon vinaigrette and walnuts) because the ingredient provides “texture contrast” to soft stuffing, mashed potatoes, and yams. The editor of the aforementioned Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Andrew Smith, is also in the green bean camp. They’re on his personal menu because they’re traditional.
I did take heart, however, from my conversation with Chez Panisse sous-chef Nathan Alderman, who said the famous Bay Area restaurant does not serve green beans this late in November. He added that he won’t be cooking green beans on Thursday, because even in California he can no longer find them at the farmers market.
Since I don’t care to be remembered as the Grinch who stole the only healthy item from the holiday spread, I’ve come up with a couple of alternatives. The Brussels sprout is seasonal and quickly prepared. Try slicing the sprouts in half, dousing them in olive oil, and roasting them with grated Parmesan cheese. Another hardy green that can survive frost: kale. Boil it first, then sauté it in olive oil. Add garlic, shallots, and hot pepper.
I can’t police the dinner menus of Slate’s many readers, but I’ll close with a proposition for my mother, who’s hosting me this Thursday. If you do me the favor of subbing out the dish-I-can-no-longer-bring-myself-to-name and subbing in a more deserving ingredient, I promise to shut up about the marshmallow I discovered in last year’s yams.