My Grandma Theresa was from the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. In the 1950s her Polish husband moved her to the suburbs, and she was ready to be the housewife she saw in the magazines. Weeknight meals and dinner party menus were ripped from Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens. Back then food brands created ads with full recipes promising women less time in the kitchen at a low cost. Her “Chicken Supreme” was a family favorite –– chicken breast baked with a can of Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup poured on top.
As time went on these recipes became muscle memory and she no longer needed to refer to her neatly organized recipe box of magazine clippings. Holidays had their regular dishes. When the weather would show signs of spring, I would start to crave grandma’s Easter spread –– ham, scalloped potatoes, pineapple pudding, and most of all, Jell-O salad. I would describe the refreshing dish to my friends, “It’s one box of lemon Jell-O with a box of lime Jell-O combined with shredded carrots, iceberg lettuce, celery, and cucumbers, and a dressing made with mayonnaise and sour cream.” My friends would listen with scrunched noses, shaking their heads in disbelief. They didn’t get it.
Gelatin dishes date back to medieval Europe. Up until the mid-19th century, jellied dishes were foods of the rich, served as elaborate molded centerpieces. Originally, jellies were made with collagen rendered from animal bones, a long and laborious process. The Industrial Revolution brought cheap powdered gelatin and mass-produced copper molds. Early ads promised housewives that they could serve what the elite were eating for just ten cents a box. Gelatine-based dishes had a great attraction, they could be prepared the day before a dinner party, freeing up time on the day itself for cooking the other items of the meal.
In the 1950s, processed food products dominated household cabinets. However, cultural expectation was for women to be more like the Grandma Ceil’s of the world, lovingly browning flour in butter for the rue of their chicken pot pie. Women who used instant and processed foods began putting labor back into their recipes to make it feel more “homemade.” Peaches were added to boxed cake mix. Tuna salad was combined with gelatin and poured in fished shaped molds and finished with a perfectly placed pimento olive for the eye. Whole cookbooks were dedicated to how to use lemon Jell-O. Canned tomatoes and shrimp were thrown in molds, and cream cheese added to give an opaque effect.
In 1905 Mrs. Cooke from New Castle, Pennsylvania, won third prize in a Knox Gelatin sponsored cooking contest for her “Perfection Salad,” an aspic filled with finely chopped celery and red pepper. In 1972, in an edition of James Beard’s American Cookery, Beard referenced Mrs. Cooke’s victory, stating it “unleashed demand for congealed salads that had grown alarmingly, particularly in the suburbs.” The revered chef grudgingly admits that “the jellied salad does have its delights, though, and it is without question an American innovation.” In the 1980s Jell-O salads phased away from American tables when we figured out coating vegetables in sugar isnt healthy for us. Jell-o salad remained on my family’s table until about 2013. I remember the first time my sister-in-law joined us for Easter. Her eyes widened when the glowing green jewel wobbled its way around the dinner table. She politely took a small spoonful and carefully placed it on the far side of her plate, making sure it didn’t touch her serving of ham and potatoes. She passed on the dressing. After the meal, I took breaks from clearing the table to shovel heaping spoonfuls of the salad in my mouth. Long live the Jell-O salad!•