The Sordid Life of the Holiday Jell-O Salad

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If like me, you were a child of the 70s or early 80s, you were lucky enough to catch the tail end of Jell-O salad popularity.   Thankfully, most of the nasty savory Jell-O salads had fallen out of favor, by then. They were replaced with tossed salads and other healthier side dishes.   Jellied tuna salads in fish-shaped molds, and nasty mayonnaise based Jell-O salads with floaters and sinkers like pickles, olives, and celery, and even Jellied Veal loaf, were some of the savory salads from which Gen Xers were saved.

The festive colors of Watergate Salad, (also called Green Fluff, Green Goop, Shut-the-Gate Salad) and the strawberry flavored Pink Fluff made them the perfect holiday table salads.   Both are salads with a base of pudding and/or Jell-O, marshmallows, fruit salad, and whipped topping. Like me, you might have even watched the ill-fated Star Wars Christmas Special in 1978 while eating pink or green fluff. According to Kraft Corporate Affairs, they developed the recipe for Watergate Salad, then called Pistachio Pineapple Delight, in 1975, the same year they released their pistachio pudding mix.   Apparently an unnamed food editor in Chicago began calling it Watergate Salad in her column, and the name was eventually changed.

There were all sorts of cranberry salads at Thanksgiving that poured onto Christmas tables as well.   The can jellied cranberry (created by Ocean Spray in 1941) along with Jell-O popularity spawned these varieties. My favorite was one my grandma made that used Gingerale to make the cranberry Jell-O, with toasted pecans and a cool whip and cream cheese layer on top.

There was also a green salad dubbed Under-the-Sea Salad by the Kraft company in their 1962 Jell-O cookbook that made it to the holiday table. It had a lime Jell-O layer over a cream cheese layer with canned pear slices embedded.   This was a favorite of my mother. But since I’ve always hated canned pears and their mealiness, I always asked for this salad without the pears, or snarkishly ate around the pears when my mother served it.     It accompanied our traditional Christmas Eve lasagna for many years before Midnight Mass.

The Sunset Salad was an orange Jell-O concoction with grated carrots and pineapple, and sometimes mandarin orange slices.   It was a bit more rare at the holiday table, considered more of a summer picnic salad. But, it was so popular in my mother’s family it did make it to the holiday table periodically.

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Many families still serve these salads today over the holidays as traditional nods to the past, and because they’re easy to make.   It wasn’t necessarily about technique, and more about presentation. But, there was a science to Jell-O salad architecture that’s detailed in the 1962 Jell-O cookbook – how to set it before layering on top of cream cheese to avoid contamination, when to add cool whip for fluffiness, and how to use it as a glaze for meats.

The second edition, Joy’s of Jell-O Cookbook says, “The bounty of Jell-O doesn’t end with its lightness, good taste, convenience, and versatility. Jell-O Gelatin is nutritious and low in calories, just 83 calories per half-cup serving.   It sits lightly on your conscience as it does on top of any meal.”   I have a South Beach diet approved, low carb version of green fluff using sugarless lime Jell-O and cottage cheese that’s really good.

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Even the name Watergate , speaks to the Jell-O salad being a truly American Innovation.   How many other dishes are named after national scandals?   Well apparently in the 1960s and 70s there was a trend for satirically named dishes like Nixon’s Perfectly Clear Consumme, and (Senator) Liddy’s Clam-up Chowder.

But creating gelatin molds and salads in aspic is a European invention, that dates back to Medieval times. Back then, it was only the rich who had well-staffed kitchens who could render animal collagen into gelatin by boiling the required bones and hooves in a several day process.     Thomas Jefferson’s time in France influenced him serving ‘wine jelly’ at Monticello to guests.   It was probably served by his house servant, Peter Fossett, who eventually came to Cincinnati after Jefferson’s death, and ran a catering business to the elite robber barons of our city for several decades.

But when Jell-O gelatin became commercially available in 1897 to the American housewife, she innovated and created all the concoctions we grew up with at home and in church basements. At the turn of the century, gas stoves, electric irons, and the telephone were revolutionizing Home Economics, and Jell-O played a large role in that revolution.   Pearl Waite, a cough syrup manufacturer, first patented the Jell-O brand, and sold it two years later, for $450 to the Genessee Food Company.   The brand is now owned by Kraft-Heinz.

Sugar rationing during World War I slowed sales of Jell-O, but the Depression made it’s popularity soar as housewives sought ways to stretch their food.   Then the addition of lime Jell-O in the 1930s boosted its popularity even more – entire cookbooks were devoted to lime Jell-O and thus the birth of the Under-the-Sea Salad and many more.   If meat and potatoes represented culinary masculinity, the Jell-O salad represented femininity.   Tea houses and social luncheons served these dainty dishes.

But even Jell-O became replaced by much more convenient microwaveable foods, as more women began entering the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s.   And, Jell-O Salads went the way of the relish dish – off the table.

There are still areas of the U.S. where Jell-O salads are still very popular in the rural Midwest and Deep South.   Mormon Utah, though, seems to be the epicenter of its popularity. Nicknamed the “Jell-O Belt” Utah adapted the Jell-O salad as its official state snack in 2001.   Although not as ubiquitous as it once was, the Jell-O salad, as food author Laura Shapiro says, is “a once loved dish safely congealed into the decorative mold of history.”

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