Roderick Taylor, LWN columnist

Roderick Taylor

Dorcas Reilly passed away a year ago this past October, she was 92, and no, I’m pretty sure you didn’t know her, but one out of three Americans will sit down and enjoy her invention this coming Thanksgiving. Ms. Reilly, you see, was the soupie who invented Campbell’s Green Bean Casserole.

The business of selling consumer products is really quite simple. There are only two strategies you need to employ as a marketer — get new customers to try your brand for the first time and/or get current customers to use more of it.

Let me give you an example: Arm and Hammer Baking Soda was looking at a way to generate new sales in the 1980s. It was the best-selling brand in a category that people really didn’t use very often. Someone got the bright idea of advertising baking soda as a deodorizer for your refrigerator, just rip off the top and stick the open box in your appliance. The suggestion made so much sense to consumers that suddenly every refrigerator in America had an open box of Arm and Hammer in it.

Campbell’s Soup launched its first recipe program, “Helps for the Hostess,” back in 1916. Campbell’s knew even then that if it could get its customers to think of new ways to use its soup, it would sell more of it. To that end, the company was one of the first to hire home economists to work in the company’s test kitchens to create new uses for its soups.

All this brings us back to Dorcas Reilly, remember her? She was a home economist working in Campbell’s test kitchen in 1955 when she tried to come up with a simple recipe that used just a few (five), easy-to-source ingredients. She created the green bean casserole using green beans, french fried onions, soy sauce, milk, and of course, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. It turned out to be a pretty good idea, Campbell’s estimates that it does 40% of its annual sales of this soup because of Ms. Reilly’s recipe.

In 2002, Dorcas Reilly donated her original 8-by-11 recipe card to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame where it resides along with Enrico Fermi’s invention of the first controlled nuclear reaction and Thomas Edison’s two greatest inventions: the light bulb and phonograph. As so many of the great ones do, she minimized her creation by noting, “It was probably [developed] in the flow of the normal recipe work we did.” To which a grateful America might add, “Maybe, and maybe not.” Give the lady credit; like all great inventors she made 1 plus 1 equal 10.

Personally, I adore this recipe and would eat it cold, the day after with my bare hands while standing in front of an open refrigerator door. The rest of my family, being the foodies that they are, would rather eat boiled newts in a white sauce reduction made with Elmer’s Glue. I will be the hungrier without it this Thanksgiving, but I hope you get to enjoy it, and when you do, I’d ask you to pause, and raise a heaping spoonful to Dorcas Reilly for inventing it.

Roderick Taylor won the 2017 Holiday Memories Essay Contest with the essay “Going Home.” He is a resident of Minnetrista.


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