Case: Food and Folklore
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Describe how the environment and history of a region shapes its food traditions.
- Explain folkloristic concepts of tradition using foods that are familiar to them.
- Recognize and reflect on the relationship between commercial foods and local cultures.
Green bean casserole, a baked dish of green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, and canned fried onions, was invented by the Campbell Soup Company in their New Jersey test kitchen in 1955. Marketed across the United States for Thanksgiving, it has since become popular among many families in the eastern Midwest, eaten not only on holidays, but also for everyday meals, potlucks, and community gatherings. It has been embraced in this region, more so than others, as an expected customary .
While it seems odd that a mass-produced, commercial food product could be considered a tradition, studies (folkloristics) sees tradition as more than just old-fashioned ways from the past. From this perspective, traditions are things, behaviors, and attitudes that connect an individual to their past, place, and other people. Traditions are resources for individuals to creatively act upon those connections, expressing—and negotiating—who they are, what they value, and what tastes they prefer.
As a food tradition, green bean casserole represents the , , and of the culture of the eastern Midwest, all of which are shaped by the history of the region. To understand why the dish has been embraced by so many residents, we need to look at that history. It is not simply a matter of people liking it or finding it convenient to make. There is a logic behind it, in the same way there is a logic to every tradition. This is particularly important to recognize with foods that are frequently made fun of or dismissed as not being ‘serious cooking’, as often happens with green bean casserole. Understanding the logic of a food tradition helps us understand why people eat the things they do. It also helps us understand how things that start out as commercial inventions and are distributed nation-wide can come to be meaningful to specific groups in specific places.
Discovering a Tradition
I first became aware of green bean casserole (GBC) when I began teaching folklore classes at a university in northwest Ohio in the mid 1990s. I frequently included assignments about food traditions, and the dish kept coming up as a standard part of Thanksgiving dinner menus and other meals. At that time, most of the undergraduate students came from the region, which was primarily rural with heavily industrial agriculture, but also included several major cities—Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio. Many of the students felt that the dish held a special place in their own lives, and, even if they didn’t like it, it carried meaningful memories for them.
That I was surprised by the popularity of the dish is a reflection of my own cultural background. I had been living on the urban east coast where there was a high value given to fresh, nutritious, and innovative foods. GBC did not fit those expectations, nor did it fit the food ethos and aesthetics of my southern upbringing where holiday foods were made from scratch and required culinary skill and finesse. In contrast, GBC is made by opening cans of green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and fried onions, mixing the contents together, and baking the mixture in the oven, none of which is too demanding.
As a folklorist, however, I wanted to understand how this tradition came about. Folklore shares many theoretical perspectives and methods with anthropology, and Franz Boas’ concept of is foundational. That means that we need to understand how a practice functions and what it means within the culture using it, rather than judge it according to our own standards.
In order to gain that understanding, I conducted formal and informal interviews with students and residents in the region and did ethnographic research. I then took my observations on GBC as a tradition back to members of this regional culture to see if they agreed with my interpretations. They affirmed that the interpretations made explicit the implicit meanings of the tradition. (This kind of collaborative, reflexive fieldwork ensures the accuracy of conclusions drawn by the researcher and is common practice in folkloristics.)
Observations on a Dish
One of the first observations drawn from my fieldwork is that GBC represents the history of this area (northwest Ohio, specifically) as a cultural region. Because it was largely swampland, it was settled later than other parts of the Midwest. Starting in the 1830s, drainage systems started being developed. The rich land was perfect for farming and its flatness made it ideal for larger machinery and large swaths of crops, setting the stage for industrial agriculture.
The region also was one of unpredictable weather. High winds, tornadoes, droughts, and heavy rainfalls could destroy crops in a moment, and the continued threat of the fields flooding and returning to swamp kept farmers on their toes. This meant that nature itself was seen as a danger, something to be tamed and controlled, rather than worked with—a worldview that embraces technology and industrial agriculture.
The human history of the region also supported that worldview. Although Native American groups had used the area for hunting and fishing, permanent settlements were established by farmers from larger, German areas of Europe. They tended to have a pragmatic and conservative approach to life, valuing hands-on skills and practical knowledge. They wanted their farms to be efficient and orderly, leaving little room for romanticizing nature or “trivial” things like decorative arts. Food was expected to be the same—hearty, filling, with no surprises. Housewives were expected to be frugal and make food guaranteed to be consumed.
Commercial, industrial foods offered those kinds of guarantees, and represented the elevation of human inventiveness and technology over nature. GBC reflects that history and worldview. It also reflects the foodways aesthetic of many of the settlers, who preferred dairy-based sauces and preserved vegetables with little spice other than salt and maybe some black pepper.
GBC also offered the opportunity to participate in a nationally known food produced by a company that represented both tradition and modernity. The Campbell Soup Company began in 1869 in New Jersey by Joseph Campbell, a fruit merchant and Abraham Anderson, an icebox manufacturer. In 1897, the company invented condensed soups, selling them for a dime for a ten-ounce can. This condensed soup was displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where it won a gold medal, and the image of that medal is still shown on the can labels. In 1916, the company published a cookbook, Helps for the Hostess, that suggested ways to incorporate condensed soups into cooking. In 1931, they began radio ads, including the saying “M’m! M’m! Good!”, which then entered into popular culture. In 1934, cream of mushroom soup was invented and promoted as a sauce as well as a soup. In 1955, the green bean casserole was invented by “Campbell home economist” Dorcas Reilly. Today, more than one million cans of soup are used everyday, and the green bean casserole is one of the company’s most popular recipes. Preparing and consuming this dish, then, is a way to participate in what is perceived as an all-American national tradition.
At the same time, GBC offered the possibility for personal creativity. One of the assumptions about commercially created, processed, and distributed foods is that individuals passively accept whatever is them handed to them. It is easy to see, however, that all of us put our own tastes and identities into foods, whether they come from the industrial food system or from our grandparents’ farm. We do this by changing ingredients or cooking styles, adding flavorings, pairing foods in particular ways, and developing our own rituals and memories around them. Variation is the hallmark of tradition, and GBC is easily varied. Some cooks use commercially canned green beans; others use home-canned. Some add mushrooms, fresh onions, or ‘Italian’ spices. Some substitute crushed potato chips for the more usual Durkee-French’s crispy fried onions. One of my children made the dish completely from organic, vegan ingredients. In this way, individuals adapt the tradition to their express their own identities, tastes, and values.
Mass-produced, commercial foods have been a significant part of American food culture since industrialization enabled their development in the late 1800s. While they seem like the antithesis of home-cooked folk foods, they have frequently been incorporated into family and community tradition. Green bean casserole illustrates how such a product can become a meaningful tradition that expresses both regional culture and individual creativity. It suggests the processes by which all of us adapt commercial foods to fit our own histories, needs, and tastes.
- Are there any food traditions you participate in that others might find silly or distasteful? Is there a “logic” to them that explains why they make sense to you?
- Can you think of any of your foods or practices that reflect the specific place you are from or live in now? Does the natural history of that place shape those foods in any way? Can you detect the influence of the cultural history?
- What are some ways that you personalize fast food or other commercially available food? How do those foods relate to your personal tastes or identities? Do you think of those foods as traditions? Does reading about GBC make you think of your own experiences with commercial foodways as traditions?
View this short documentary on Mexican-American food in northwest Ohio. The video focuses on the meanings of tortillas for members of that community and discusses how the artistry and skill needed to make tortillas is oftentimes overlooked. Drawing on your own experience, reflect on foods in your life that might not be appreciated by others.
Ask yourself: Does that lack of appreciation evoke embarrassment, sadness, or even humiliation? In what ways are your foods significant carriers of identity, values, or memories?
Kim, S. and R.M. Livengood. 1995. “Ramen Noodles and Spam: Popular Noodles, Significant Tastes.” Digest: An Interdisciplinary Study of Food and Folklore 15: 2-11.
Long, L.M., ed. 2015. Food and Folklore: A Reader. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Long, L.M. 2007. “Green Bean Casserole and Midwestern Identity: A Regional Foodways Aesthetic and Ethos.” Midwestern Folklore 33 (1): 29–44.
Long, L.M. 1999. “Food Demonstrations in the Classroom: Practicing Ethnography and the Complexities of Identity with Tamales in Northwest Ohio.” Digest 19: 46–52.
Long, L.M. 2004. “Learning to Listen to the Food Voice: Recipes as Expressions of Identity and Carriers of Memory.” Food, Culture, and Society 7 (1): 118–122.
Long, L.M. 2001. “Nourishing the Academic Imagination: The Use of Food in Teaching Concepts of Folkloristics.” Food and Foodways 9 (3-4): 235–262.
For more on folklore as a discipline and profession, see the website of the American Folklore Society.
Also see the Center for Food and Culture for more discussion of folklore approaches, as well as our YouTube channel for short documentaries on food traditions in northwest Ohio.
practices and products connecting individuals to their past, place, and other people; a resource for creativity, social interaction, and identity; traditions may exist for many centuries or be invented and reiterated over a relatively short period of time.
the scholarly study of tradition.
the sense of self; how a group or individual characterizes themselves.
a worldview and value system.
the system of evaluating sensory stimuli; in the case of food, aesthetics tends to relate to the pleasurable experiences of taste, smell, sight, and texture.
an approach in which traditions and other cultural patterns are evaluated within their own systemic context, rather than analyzed from the ‘outside’ of that culture.