Update: My next-door neighbor, Gil, found French's onions at Target. I had looked there, but didn't find them. The onions are no longer in a can, but rather a plastic container.
The green-bean-and-cream-of-mushroom-soup-with-French-fried-onions casserole is to food as Air Supply is to music, as the AMC Pacer is to cars: dated, yet memorable if only for its awfulness.
A centerpiece of the middle-class spread, the casserole was foisted upon many '70s- and '80s-era homemakers by the Campbell Soup Co., which was probably in cahoots with Del Monte and French's, although I have no evidence to back this up.
For time-pressed moms, what could be easier than sloshing together a few cans of green beans and condensed soup in a dish and baking it for a half hour? And is there a note more musical than the burp emitted by a newly opened can of French-fried onions? Well, it is more musical than Air Supply.
My mother served the casserole usually during blizzards and other natural disasters that put us folks living in the sticks under lockdown. As my brother and I watched the wind-driven snow buffet the house and played the 4,000th game of Monopoly, she lovingly pulled the gurgling Corningware dish from the oven, along with meatloaf she had supplemented with oatmeal because we had run out of beef. We ate the meal, as grateful and glum as if we were the Waltons. (Pop culture alert for 20- and 30somethings: The Waltons was a clean-cut 1970s drama about a family living during the Depression. The program inspired the meme "Good night, John-Boy." It still airs on the Inspiration Network.)
Until last week I had not eaten this casserole since the Blizzard of 1977. To remind myself of those snug, chill-filled years BCC (Before Climate Change), I decided to fix the dish. However, I was unprepared for the substance that oozed from the soup can. What hath this can shat? Snot? Concrete? Caulk?
I snobbified the recipe by using organic milk and organic soy sauce and grinding my own pepper. What? Use McCormick's? Snort! I tossed in some Del Monte whole Blue Lake green beans—to use farmers market produce seemed to throw pearls before swine. My green beans-to-soup ratio was too low—too few beans to too much soup—but hey, this was my first time.
Another problem: French-fried onions from a vacuum-sealed can are an essential part of this dish. In fact, without the onions, it's just another casserole. But I could not find them even after searching in four grocery stores. So I had to settle for Funyuns, onion-flavored rings I spied in the snack food aisle.
Its integrity now in question, the casserole began baking in the oven.
"Write about how it stinks up the house," my husband, Dennis, mused, crinkling his nose as he ambled through the kitchen.
A half hour later, voila! A dish from my childhood. I tentatively took a bite.
Realization No. 1: This casserole is nothing more than a salt vessel. My body is retaining water. Get me Lasix, stat.
Realization No. 2: After a night in the refrigerator, the green beans lose their buoyancy and sink to the bottom of the soup sea. As for the soup, it hardens into a consistency found in dental molds, which will come in handy should I decide to have my lower front teeth straightened.
Realization No. 3: My mom's humble blizzard-proof version was better.
Cue Air Supply: "I'm never going to make it like you do, making love out of nothing at all."
2 cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 cup milk
2 tsp. soy sauce
Ground pepper, to taste
8 cups canned green beans
1/2 cup French-fried onion rings or 5–6 Funyuns
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the soup (do not add water) and milk in a 3-quart casserole dish. Add soy sauce and pepper. Stir in green beans. Sprinkle mixture with onion product. Bake for 25 minutes until bubbling and the onion product is turning brown. Stir and bake for an additional 5 minutes. Serve immediately to eat. Store overnight in refrigerator for other uses: boat anchor, cement block, shot put.
Recipe based on one supplied by Campbell's.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Making love out of nothing at all."