Jell-O, once the favorite congealed dessert of Americans has fallen from grace despite all its savory applications. Yet, few foods can tell us more about life in 20th-century American living than the wobbling jewel of domestic achievement: the Jell-O salad. Some gourmet experts would prefer that it be permanently assigned to the Gallery of Regrettable Foods.
The patent for powdered gelatin dates from 1845, the year Prince Braunfels was founding the city that still bears his name. Who among his settlers suspected they would soon be enjoying an American sensation? Gelatin, by the way, is a collection of peptides and proteins extracted from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals such as domesticated cattle, chicken, pigs, and fish. The first gelatin powders required boiling water to dissolve.
In 1885 the recipe was bought by Peale Wait, a carpenter trying to bottle cough syrup, who added flavors thinking it might add to his line of cough syrups. It didn’t and so he sold the recipe to a neighbor, Oscar Woodward, who formed the Jell-O Company, which eventually became part of General Foods.
The Jell-O girl became the face identified with every package of Jell-O. It was drawn in 1908 by Rose O’Neill, who also gave the world the Kewpie Doll. The first success of Jell-O was as a salad and can be traced to one called the perfection salad and introduced in 1904 by Mrs. John E. Cook of New Castle, Pennsylvania. She placed 3rd in a Better Homes and Gardens recipe contest and was given a sewing machine.
The key to Jell-O’s success was creating new and exciting ways to serve it, and they appeared endless. Molds for solidifying Jell-O became a craze and no modern home was without one. Even an old-fashioned bunt cake pan would work, but today Jell-O is classified as retro. Nevertheless, no matter what one may think about Jell-O today, it did have a major impact on the way Americans ate—whether healthy or not.
The 1930s had witnessed major changes how Americans thought about foods, as well as how they purchased, stored, and prepared it. More than 11 million women had joined the workforce by then and of which better than 10% were married and still expected to prepare meals. Refrigerators had replaced those old iceboxes, which meant food could be kept cold longer and fewer trips to the grocery store were required. During the Great Depression, economy became as important as efficiency – leftovers were valuable. Cookbook authors were busy creating new ways of incorporating them into new dishes. Fresh fruits and vegetables were becoming more prominent in the American diet. Bright colors, dainty shapes, eye-catching swirls of mayonnaise and garnishes galore were intended to make meals attractive and appealing. Seeing even a simple Jell-O topped with whipped cream to be enjoyed as dessert on our table brought comfort to us in the ‘50s and were a part of the good life America offered after World War II.
Gelled and congealed salads—sweet, savory, or both—became staples in American household to the extent that about 1/3 of all cookbook recipes were gelatin based—an astonishing statistic that causes today’s gourmet chefs to shiver in disgust and disbelief. Bits of vegetables, meats, fruit, marshmallow, and cheese could be mixed to create molded “one-dish wonders” and even suitable to be served as a main course! How utterly passé. Perhaps all those creative ideas could have been put to better use, but the 1950s post war years, still had women shortchanged, stuck with universal childcare, and often in a remote ranch or farmhouse. Jell-O was her only weapon with which to be creative or shorten her time spent in the kitchen.
Very often we do not realize the change happening around us. Perhaps, here in Fredericksburg, we lived our lives very much in the past. Yet, despite all that might be theorized about our changing lifestyle, the historical record cannot deny that women were active participants in the cult of the Jell-O salad craze, but only because men were not in the kitchen. Figuring out new ways to combine various fruits, vegetables, and condiments in previously inconceivable combinations became an expression of creativity. Those wishing to understand what was happening might read American Cuisine: And how it Got this Way by Paul Freedman.
I counted no fewer than 23 congealed salad recipes in my 6th edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book. I think by 1948 that the PTA ladies were pretty sold on them—not a single Jell-O recipe can be found in the New Best Recipe published by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, and my copy of the Oxford Companion to Food cannot even acknowledge that congealed salads ever existed.
It appears that Jell-O salads have mostly gone out of fashion in favor of salads made with just vegetables. Their last hurrah came in the early to mid ‘60s. 1963-1967 were the years for the Sparkling Jell-O Mold made with Champagne and fresh fruit. That recipe likely was never made here. I cannot even remember the last time I ate Jell-O. Finding this hand-written copy among my mom’s recipe, however, brought back a lot of happy memories. This Lemon-Pineapple Jell-O Salad was one my mom made often.
1 ½ pkg lemon Jell-O
2 cups boiling water
1 can #2 crushed pineapples
1 3 oz. Pkg. Philadelphia Cream Cheese
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated carrots
1 cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped pecans
Dissolve Jell-O in hot water as directed
Drain pineapples and add water
Soften, then add cream cheese and mayonnaise
When mixture is partially congealed stir in carrots, celery, and pecans
Chill and serve. Looks pretty when served on a crisp lettuce leaf.