By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
July brings summer barbecues, picnics and family celebrations. For me, one of the staples of these gatherings is a green bean casserole covered with crispy onions. So, imagine my surprise when I recently ran across a story that the recipe apparently has Florida citrus origins!
Cecily Brownstone was the food editor for the Associated Press from 1947 to 1986. Her articles were noted by Tablet Magazine’s Leah Koenig as among “the most widely syndicated stories in the country.”
In 1955, Brownstone wrote an article about a press dinner she attended at John Snively, Jr.’s home in Winter Haven. The event was likely part of the Florida Citrus Exposition. During the meal, a green bean dish was getting rave reviews from the attendees. Brownstone provided some great press — not about citrus, but in the form of this widely read article from the Spartanburg Herald Journal on April 22, 1955:
“Go recipe hunting in Florida and you come up with a dish originated by an American homemaker and enjoyed by the queen of Iran. Stopping for a barbecue supper at the Clearwater Lake cottage of John A. Snively, Jr., and his wife, May, we snooped into royal eating habits.
“The day of our visit, great sides of beef and pork — stashed with a pungent BBQ sauce of John Snively’s devising — gave off irresistible flavors as they roasted to a turn in a shallow outdoor barbecue pit. We could hardly wait until the meat was carved and offered to us. Brunswick stew came on, hearty and fiery. But the dish we fell madly in love with was a simple casserole of green beans with an intriguing topping.
“As May Snively watched us take second and third helpings of her casserole, she told us that she and her husband had entertained Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi and Queen Soraya of Iran at a similar barbecue supper during their recent American visit. The queen also had eaten the green bean dish with gusto.
“The Snivelys went all out for the Iranian rulers. May and her mother-in-law spent the day supervising their cooking, setting tables for the dozens of guests expected for the party and arranging flower centerpieces and place cards. Shortly before supper, the chief of protocol for the royal visitors arrived and surveyed the two large cottage living rooms set with tables. He decreed that one of the rooms would have to be cleared of all tables except one, and the shah and the queen would dine there alone.
“The thoroughly American and unpretentious hosts weren’t prepared for this — but they were good sports. When the shah and Queen Soraya arrived, they were ushered into the room with the solitary table and put into the hands of Spencer, the genial helper who has been with the Snively family for years. ‘But,’ May Snively told us with eyes twinkling, ‘Spencer is not a polished butler!’
“Each time Spencer offered Queen Soraya a dish, she looked at him in the eye, asked him what was in it and considered carefully before she helped herself. Pork, beef and chicken were easy for Spencer. But when it came to the special vegetable casserole that was being served with the meat, he lost his patience: ‘Listen, lady,’ he said, ‘It’s just beans and stuff.’
“The queen dug in.
“Back in our New York kitchen we tried duplicating ‘Beans and Stuff.’ Our tasters were entranced, begged for the recipe.”
Koenig writes: “As was common at the time, she called up a food manufacturer, in this case, Campbell’s Soup Co., to help develop a recipe that would appear in newspapers across America. And so the modern green bean casserole, in all of its soupy, crunchy-topped glory, was born.”
I had to wonder: Why didn’t Brownstone just ask Mrs. Snively for the recipe!?
Jim Snively told me that his Aunt Susan said the security was so “extreme” during the visit that no pictures were allowed and that his great grandmother Haney was “so bent out of shape” because all of the food had to be tasted by the shah’s servants to ensure it was not poisoned.
“She was totally insulted that someone was questioning her prepared dishes!” he said.
But I’d say that was a well-baked plan that ended up being worth the hassle.
Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.
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