The History of Three Bean Salad

This is not a salad I grew up with at all. I actually did not even know three bean salad existed until I moved to the South in my teen years and saw it on the shelves in grocery stores. My mother was known for her macaroni and potato salads which were often requested for family barbecues so those always dominated the table. I actually did not expect much when I started researching three bean salad and was pleasantly surprised what I found. 

Who and where was Three Bean Salad created?
This is another recipe where no one really knows the exact origin of this dish. Jean Anderson of The American Cookbook remembers her first encounter with three bean salad as being in the 1950s but she felt that it must have been created before that. She referenced many cookbooks of the early 20th century and could not find a recipe before the ’50s. A 1966 article guesses that the recipe may have been influenced by the Mediterranean but also says that it could be an 100% American creation. Both Ceil Dyer of Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars and Sylvia Lovegren of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads both point to a recipe from Stokely-Van Camp. There is nothing that I can find that this was the original but it may have been the recipe that sparked the interest in the 1950s. I know this is an unsatisfying answer to this question. 

HanoverThreeBeanSalad1970

What ingredients are in Three Bean Salad?
This is a recipe that even today honestly has not changed much from recipe to recipe with the ingredients varying very little. The super easy salad is made usually with canned beans that most 1950s homes already had in their pantry. Though there are a few recipes that can be found that used fresh beans that were blanched first. The three beans are kidney, waxed and green beans mixed with finely chopped onion and bell pepper. They are then marinated in a simple dressing of oil, vinegar and sugar. If they wanted to turn it into a four bean salad then chickpeas would be added.

When was Three Bean Salad popular?
The height of the popularity was the 1950s as barbecuing and outdoor cooking became a huge trend. Think Instant Pot trend big of the last few years. It became popular not only for the ease of putting it together but also the longer it sat in the marinade the better it tasted. Plus a salad that did not include mayonnaise is also a plus for picnics on hot summer days. This salad could be found at many pot luck meals and buffets in the mid century as well.  In a 1957 article, food columnist Dorothy Dean called this her new favorite “picnic salad” recipe. She further explains that she brings it to every outdoor event she is invited too while calling it a “good traveler”. Also reading this made me chuckle because all I could picture was like six three bean salads at one picnic as everyone had the same idea.

ReadCannedSalads1978

The popularity continued into the 1960s. A 1964 article described the salad as “one liked by all ages and that fits onto almost any occasion, menu and setting from barbecues and picnics to Sunday supper on the porch, formal buffet table and a lot of in between”. Food columnist Cecily Brownstone agreed when she called this the perfect buffet salad to serve with a main course and crusty French bread while also calling three bean salad “very popular these days”. Other points these 1960s articles made about the salad was that it made a fine potluck contribution, great made ahead, and can easily be made in large quantities for larger gatherings. This salad was also called a “favorite crowd-pleaser” as well as dubbed one of the tastiest salads you will ever find. By the late 1960s and early 1970s you started to see prepared canned versions from Hanover and Read on the market. 

Even though the height of the popularity was the mid century it does not mean this salad does not still have an audience. You can find a premade version at most grocery stores as well as find this salad still at potlucks and buffets. Even in the 2000s this salad was still being called a perfect salad for picnics with it being “beautiful at its final destination as it is at home” with a promise that everyone that has tried it has loved it.

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Why should I make Three Bean Salad?
I am going to sound like a broken record and repeat what you probably just read but it is easy, quick and cheap salad to make. It can be made ahead of time or just an hour before. This is such a low effort recipe perfect for hot summer days. This is also a good base recipe to play with to make your own or modernize it. Want a little spice? Chop up a jalapeno. Don’t have white vinegar? Play around with other flavor of vinegars to change the profile. Apple cider vinegar is particularly good. Don’t want to use plain old white sugar? Try using other sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey or agave. Other ideas? Try adding a little minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce or sub a shallot of the onion. Point is that you can make this as simple or complex in flavor as you want. Though lets be real if you hate beans with a fiery passion then this is not the salad for you.

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How do you make Three Bean Salad?

Three Bean Salad

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A popular salad from the 1950s!

Ingredients

  • 1 15 oz can of green beans, drained
  • 1 15 oz can of waxed beans, drained
  • 1 15 oz can of kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Mix together in a large mixing bowl all three beans with the bell pepper and onion. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, oil, vinegar, pepper and salt. Pour over the bean mixture.
  3. Let chill in the fridge for at least an hour preferably over night.
  4. Depending on your preference, you can strain the liquid out of the salad before serving.

Sources:
Anderson, Jean. The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. New York: Clarkson Potter Publisher, 1997.

“Bean Salad Proves Popular”. The Deseret News. May 21, 1980.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Main Dish is Freezer Salad”. The Free Lancer-Star. January 16, 1967.

Dean, Dorothy. “This Salad’s a Favorite for Late Summer Picnics”. The Spokesman Review. August 18, 1957.

Dean, Dorothy. “Variety of Wonderful Salads Featured”. The Spokesman-Review”. March 18, 1965.

Dyer, Ceil. Best Recipes from the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars. New York: Galahad Books, 1982.

Hanover Bean Salad Ad. The Pittsburgh Press. November 16, 1970.

Jardine, Winnifred. “Food is Fun: Marvelous Salad”. The Deseret News. February 28, 1967.

Lovegren, Sylvia. Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. USA: Macmillan, 1995.

Mills, Beverly and Ross, Alicia. “Three Bean Salad Will Travel Easily to Summer Picnics.” Reading Eagle. June 21, 2008.

Read Easter Salad Ad. The Evening Independent. April 14, 1976

“Three Bean Salad Fits in Varied Meal Occasions”. Eugene Register Guard. July 23, 1964.

“Variation is Offered for Popular Three Bean Salad”. Lawrence Daily Journal-World. November 9, 1966.

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