by Diana Bulls
Spring has sprung, and Easter is just around the corner. My family, along with many others, will be gathering after church to celebrate this first holiday in spring. And those gatherings are sure to include food. For my family, Easter is usually a potluck buffet on the patio. My brother furnishes the ham and the rest of us bring the baked beans, deviled eggs, Jell-O salad and desserts. Yes, I did say Jell-O salad. It’s a tradition.
Ok, I know that some of you will be laughing (or shuddering) at the thought of a Jell-O salad. I have a child who flatly refuses to touch anything resembling Jell-O, let alone put it into her mouth. Some people joke about the “traditional” cranberry Jell-O salad that shows up at Thanksgiving and usually gets thrown out after dinner. Jell-O salads just seem to have a bad reputation.
What I find interesting though, in spite of the apparent unpopularity of Jell-O salads, is the number of recipes one can find in cookbooks. Every cookbook ever compiled by a church or women’s organization is bound to have several pages devoted to Jell-O salad recipes. Even my 1950 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book devotes an entire page to making a molded salad (Strawberry Salad Glacé) in seven steps, followed by 18 additional gelatin salad recipes.
Gelatin dishes, often called jellies, have been around for a long time, but like most early specialty foods they were only for the well to do. In 1845, Peter Cooper created the first powdered gelatin–all you had to do was add hot water. The trouble was gelatin didn’t taste very good. In 1897 Pearle Wait and his wife May came up with the idea of adding fruit flavors and LOTS of sugar to the powdered gelatin, creating an instant dessert they called Jell-O. The original flavors were strawberry, raspberry, lemon and orange.
Unfortunately the Waits didn’t have the funds or the experience to market the product successfully, so they ended up selling the fledgling company to Orator Frank Woodword, the owner of Genesee Pure Foods Company. Woodward knew how to sell a product. He offered free samples to homemakers and used every sales trick known to man to get grocers to stock their shelves with Jell-O, but sales still lagged. In 1904, Woodward decided to invest in print advertising and the first Jell-O ad appeared in the Ladies Home Journal.
This ad cost a princely sum of $336 and featured smiling woman in a white apron proclaiming Jell-O to be “America’s Favorite Dessert”. Sales skyrocketed. Woodward began printing Jell-O recipe books. The company handed out free Jell-O to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. They also introduced the Jell-O Girl, who with a tea kettle in one hand and a packet of Jell-O in the other, declared to the world that, “You can’t be a kid without it.”
Okay, so where and when did Jell-O salads appear?
From my brief research, I understand that gelatin salads were an American phenomenon beginning in the 1930s. They seem to have sprung mostly from the kitchens of the southern and mid-western states and were originally referred to as congealed salads. Now that is a name that would put anyone off–it sounds like something out of C.S.I. Interestingly, while most the country calls them Jell-O salads today, they are still referred to as congealed salads in the south.
During this time Jell-O introduced lime flavor to go with the various combinations cooks were using, like cabbage, celery and green peppers. By the 1950s Jell-O salads were so popular that the company introduced savory flavors like celery, Italian, mixed vegetable and seasoned tomato; can’t find these flavors today though. But it only points out that in the history of Jell-O salads, there have been some very strange combinations of ingredients, and this may be the start of the bad reputation.
One of the strangest Jell-O salad recipes I have ever read is the “Corned Beef Salad.” Lemon Jell-O, diced celery, boiled eggs, mayonnaise, green peppers, onions and 2 cans of corned beef make up the ingredients. Now, I like Jell-O salads, but this particular recipe might put even me off. And then there is tuna and Jell-O pie, which is sort of like a summer salad, or lime Jell-O, pineapple, olive and SPAM salad. There’s more.
Of course if you are going to make a Jell-O salad, you need something more than a 9×11 glass dish. Copper jelly molds have been around since Victorian times and before, but again it took the advent of aluminum and the Jell-O Company to make molds affordable and easily available to the American housewife. The company must have sent out a million or so aluminum molds between 1925 and 1930 for just a small shipping and handling fee.
These gelatin molds were made by a variety of companies and come in an amazing array of shapes and sizes. Some are even copper colored. In addition to making great looking Jell-O salads–and if you are going to all the trouble of making a layered Cherry Jell-O and Coca-Cola salad, you want it to look great–the molds look good hanging on your kitchen wall.
Putting together a collection of molds is as easy as visiting a few thrift stores or hitting the yard sale circuit. They are plentiful and usually cheap. Of course (and I have said this before), you can always look in your mother or grandmother’s kitchen for a start.
Searching out those “unique” Jell-O salad recipes is pretty easy as well. You can start with the cookbooks on your own kitchen shelf or check out the cookbook section at a used book store like Resurrected Books in Reedley.
In the meantime, enjoy your Easter Sunday and if dinner includes a Jell-O salad I hope it is one of those fluffy ones with cream cheese. I would love to hear about your “favorite” Jell-O salad recipe, so please share!
Check out more of Diana’s home collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.