I’m all about historical cooking these days, and it seems like I’m not alone (albeit a little behind the trend). For example, food blogger Alejandra Ramos at Always Order Dessert recently dusted off a recipe for molded Salmon Mousse, and she frequently finds inspiration from vintage cookbooks. Television shows also explore historical eating, like the Cooking Channel’s show “The Supersizes Go…”, which follows British restaurant critic Giles Coren and his mostly vegetarian comedienne friend, Sue Perkins, as they eat through British history, one week at a time. I’ve tried my hand at my great grandmother’s chopped liver (delicious!), and in this post will document my experiences with Jell-O.
Because I love kitsch and commodified Americana, Jell-O holds a special place in my heart, but not in my belly. I have never been to a family reunion picnic or a church potluck, and thus have actually never seen a Jell-O mold in person. Growing up straddling two ethnic subcultures, we had our own food traditions that also seemed to be outside the realm of the edible. Only now that I am older, and possess a more adventurous palate, am I able to eat such Jewish holiday staples like Gefilte fish.
But Jell-O with its vibrant hues, well-defined layers, and artfully suspended slices of canned mandarin oranges, has always enticed me. Jell-O represents that mythic American—so often evoked by conservative politicians—where possibility was endless and America was a major global superpower (let’s not get into the reality here…that’s for another day). Our greatness could also be seen in our dessert—the laws of gravity couldn’t contain even our food!
Jell-O is America’s most patriotic dessert!
My interest in Jell-O began when I stumbled upon a fantastic Jell-O cookbook at antique/thrift store, TFA, here in St. Louis. Betty King, the book’s original owner, provided helpful notes alerting whomever possesses the book that yes, Frozen Fruit Salad (last made on 10/71), was in fact “good,” the Sour Cream Dessert does need some measurement changes, and the Cool Lime Salad (made on 10/12/71) was only “Fair” due to its saltiness, excessive horseradish flavor, and not having enough “tang”. It appears Betty’s only attempt at salads began and ended with Cool Lime—she was apparently a very wise woman.
Many of these recipes will never be able to be recreated in their full glory; they call for Jell-O varieties like Celery, Italian, or Seasoned Tomato—flavors since discontinued.
I first looked for a solution on the Internet to see if anyone else had tried to recreate these savory side dishes, but it seems like no one is making Jell-O salads these days. How could I create these wonders in culinary architecture without the appropriately flavored foundation?
Some recipes called for lime flavored Jell-O, but the intensely saccharine qualities of sweet flavors seemed too overpowering. I needed to find powdered flavoring agents that wouldn’t interfere with the gel-process, but still gave the jiggle an appropriate side-dish type flavor. I opted for bullion cubes.
Vegan bullion did not work—it never dissolved and the smell was reminiscent of my brother’s hockey bag after a weekend-long tournament. A half cube of chicken seemed to do the trick-albeit it gave the Jell-O a somewhat unsettling yellow tint.
For my first attempt, I went somewhat big and made the Cheese Vegetable Salad, a recipe that called for the addition of cottage cheese. Many of these recipes called for mayonnaise, sour cream, lunchmeat, tuna, or cheese, and I thought cottage cheese was a somewhat “out there,” yet in my mind somewhat appropriate for a Jell-O mold.
The final result was…actually not that bad. The flavor was acceptable, the vegetables were crunchy, and the Spanish olives added a nice saltiness.
It still was pretty inedible though. The veg-to-jiggle ratio was off. If you’re accustomed to eating food with a gelatinous-like consistency I’m sure it wouldn’t bother you—but there was just too much jiggle for my taste.
For my next attempt I nixed the cottage cheese (although I’m thinking it might help with texture for future attempts, it can fill all those little spaces that otherwise would be full of Jell-O), chopped the veg in larger pieces, used less water for a firmer texture, and tried a different assortment of veggies.
Again, not terrible, but still too much gelatin-to-veg, and the tomatoes added another layer of mush consistency that wasn’t as pleasant as raw crunchy vegetables like carrots or peppers.
The result isn’t as tall as those featured in the vintage advertisements, nor does it inspire innovative culinary dreaming, but I don’t think the contemporary palate can handle that much gelatinous promise these days.
If I attempt this again, more changes are necessary. I’m thinking a variety of vegetable sizes and a smaller amount of gelatin, used only to coat the ingredients and provide some structural support, but not much else. I see it as a possible supporting player—adding crowd-pleasing whimsy to a meal, but not really starring as an edible feature ingredient.
I hope these salads remain locked away, never to be seriously considered as the next big thing in food. The thought of a Jell-O salad revival reminds me of hipsters—lots of pastiche, plenty of irony, yet relying too heavily on aesthetics—completely lacking depth (and in this case nutritional value).