Break the Mold: A New Look at Jell-O Salad - No. 114
Love or hate them, tomato aspic, bing cherry mold, and other refrigerated classics remind us of perfection and salad days gone by
As I boarded my Southwest flight home to Nashville recently, women in line behind me boasted about the Jell-O shots they’d just inhaled at the bar. I smiled and couldn’t remember a Jell-O shot.
But Jell-O and I go way back.
And I’m not talking about rubbery squares found in school cafeterias. I’m talking about bright, jewel-toned jiggly salads, filled with glistening fruit, symbols of domestic achievement made possible with a package of gelatin and a wink of an eye.
These congealed salads, as we called them in the South, were savory, too. My mother and her friends ogled over tomato aspic, especially with chicken salad in the center, and I’m pretty sure if molded salads had a hierarchy, aspic would be at the top. Crack open my husband’s Aunt Janet’s tomato aspic and a field day of artichoke hearts, asparagus tips, and green olives awaited you.
Truthfully, we children preferred a more pedestrian strawberry Jell-O salad, which was an institution at Thanksgiving dinner. It could be poured into a fancy mold or if you had a lot of people to feed, right into a Pyrex pan and cut into squares. No matter where you toted it, people who never ate cranberries ate every last bite.
And thinking back on that salad got me thinking about jellied salads and how they got to our table and who made them and why we still get weepy about them.
Salad Drama with a capital D
When I glance at the back of my cupboard today and see the stacks of aluminum ring molds, I see my mother. And I see my mother-in-law and her generation and their manicured food prep, nothing like the salads I throw together at the last minute.
Their salads made a real red-carpet kind of entrance.
I’m talking color, flavor, texture, but mostly drama. The cool drama of that beautifully quivering mold on a tier in the center of the table never revealed the real sweat and tears that took place in the kitchen earlier when it would not un-mold itself.
No doubt, perfecting cold jellied salads took practice. Something that women in early 20th century America were willing to take on, says Laura Shapiro in her book, Perfection Salad, because molded salads embraced the efficiency, cleanliness, and order that women were seeking in that Progressive Era.
“A salad at last in control of itself,” she said.
That’s why seasoned salad mavens greased their molds first with oil, or even mayo as Helen Corbitt, the high priestess of congealed salads, advised in her 1957 Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook.
And it’s why my mother always ran hot water in the kitchen sink, then would take the chilled salad mold out of the fridge, run a slender knife around the edges, dip the pan gently into the water like she was testing bath water for a baby, and hold it there just long enough to warm the outside of the pan, so the salad would slide a little, and then she’d jiggle it to make sure it was loose, and walk the salad over to the lettuce-lined plate, and with all bets on the table, flip it upside-down.
A salad very much in control of itself and us
The congealed salad’s roots go back to medieval Europe when to boil calves’ hooves in water to render the collagen (which solidified the stock) and then clarify it with egg whites was a time-consuming process few could afford. And it was learned that gelatin, or what the French called “aspic,” encasing the food was not only beautiful to look at but served as a preservative because bacteria couldn’t get to the food and cause it to spoil.
In early America, jellied foods made a big splash to impress others, and there was the French-inspired wine jelly at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the sherry-scented Charlotte Russe poured over ladyfingers in Charleston, and Andrew Jackson’s favorite dish while he was President—calf’s foot jelly, flavored with lemon, spices, and a full bottle of Madeira.
How jellied desserts made their way into the salads still served today took about 50 years thanks finally to the invention of powdered gelatin. In 1893 a Philadelphia Cooking School teacher, Sarah Tyson Rorer, was testing recipes for Knox Gelatine and suggested they transform the gelatin sheets that had to be soaked for 30 minutes in cold water to a more convenient granulated gelatin a housewife would use. A year later, Knox created not only an unflavored and unsweetened granulated gelatin but published recipes for puddings, mousses, charlottes, jellies, tomato aspic, all the dainty recipes that women, especially those without kitchen help, were craving.
And in 1905, Knox sponsored a recipe contest where Mrs. John Cooke of New Castle, PA, submitted Perfection Salad, a cole slaw meets Jell-O filled with cabbage, celery, and red pepper. And while Perfection Salad didn’t win first place, it did win third and Mrs. Cooke received a $100 sewing machine for her efforts. And she might be pleased, too, that her recipe has stood the test of time. According to James Beard in his 1972 book, James Beard’s American Cookery, Perfection Salad “unleashed a demand for congealed salads that has grown alarmingly, particularly in the suburbs.”
While Knox was supplying cooks with unflavored gelatin, Jell-O, a flavored combination of gelatin and sugar, was building its own audience. And Jell-O became a family staple in good times, and especially in wartime and Depression, allowing Americans to not use up the last of their precious sugar. The very idea that you could take a box of Jell-O, a can of fruit, and water and feed 10 people salad was appealing.
Wonder Years? More like molded salad years
I flipped forward a few decades to the salad chapter in a 1964 Nashville Seasons Junior League cookbook, where most recipes require a ring mold. Apricot salads with plain or lemon gelatin. An artichoke and asparagus salad where the gelatin is combined with homemade mayo and whipped cream. Two bing cherry salads both with sherry and one with walnuts. Three molded crabmeat salads. Frozen fruit salads. Lime and ginger-ale salads. Seven variations on tomato aspic.
And yet with the events that would transpire in the ‘60s—the Cuban missle crisis, assassinations, Vietnam, civil rights, tear gas, sit-ins, The Pill—the decade that started with Perfection Salad and ended with Woodstock just couldn’t be molded anymore.
In the ‘70s, my mother embraced Caesar salad and sun-dried tomatoes. She made her own salad dressings with olive oil. She’d create an occasional tomato aspic for ladies luncheons where there would be older women present, but the salad mold was like that shirtwaist dress she once squeezed into—headed to the back of the closet.
Now, it was more fun trying a new Tuscan salad recipe from Bon Appetit when her friends came over to play bridge. Or maybe something with zucchini or basil.
Love or hate Jell-O salads? Tell us about it.
Or, you might say, gelatin salads never left us
More Jello is consumed in Salt Lake City than any other U.S. city, did you know? And beyond the West, in church basements and holiday dining rooms across the South, Midwest, and East, Jell-O still celebrates and mourns with us. Its recipes fill the pages of community cookbooks.
A bing cherry salad made with Coca-Cola was such regular funeral fare in Mississippi when Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays wrote the cookbook, Being Dead is No Excuse, in 2005, they wondered if people “go into secret Jell-O withdrawals between funerals.”
My friend Lisa doesn’t hide her affection for the molded salad.
“I just love Jell-O salad…I used to make a salad with peach Jell-O, whipped cream, crushed pineapple, and nuts. You didn’t dissolve the gelatin and mixed it all together.”
Sounds like a dye I’d smear on my hair…
“I made it three years ago,” she said, “and served it as a dessert and nobody said a word. It was that good.”
Reviving Eugenia’s Bing Cherry Jell-O Salad
But the salad that Lisa is most known for is the bing cherry Jell-O salad she made for her son’s first birthday. A Tennessee recipe, it was the creation of her father-in-law’s mother, Eugenia Dunn, who assembled this salad for every family get-together while they lived in Michigan. Two of Eugenia’s daughter-in-laws continued to make her salad, one with bing cherry Jell-O, and the other with half black cherry and half lemon Jell-O. Lisa inherited the family’s Jell-O salad plate it rests on and the little crystal dish the mayo goes in. And the spoon.
Mayonnaise was/is the condiment of choice for gelatin salads. Eugenia Dunn folded whipped cream into the mayonnaise for hers.
Turns out, Eugenia’s recipe is nearly the same one my cousin Margaret brought to a family potluck. And even though Jell-O’s home economists have cranked out countless recipes, and even more iterations have been created in home kitchens, they all seem faintly related.
So I pull down my mother’s pans and head to the store for gelatin to see if the old recipes still work. And see if I’m still hungry for them, too. I find the gelatin aisle is a lot smaller than when I last looked. No bing cherry Jell-O, and you have to search for black cherry Jell-O, but it’s there.
I give Eugenia’s recipe a try, as well as my mother’s tomato aspic, which I load with avocado, celery, and dill, and also the Perfection Salad, which I have never made.
And all three looked gorgeous on ruffly lettuce leaves, which keep the molds cool so they don’t melt on the plate. (I also made a less successful avocado and tomato layered aspic, which was too sweet for me. In fact, next time, I might retry it, omit the sugar, and add more mashed avocado.)
Because you know there is going to be a next time. The next chance I get to pull down the family pans and dust off the recipe cards. The next time I update that strawberry-cranberry salad for Thanksgiving.
Something tells me those ladies behind me boarding that flight just might have an institutional knowledge of Jell-O, too, one that began at holiday dinners and funerals, long before they were old enough to drink.
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Eight rules of molded salads you might like to know:
Although I have carefully measured the liquid in these recipes, as a rule, add less liquid than the recipe calls for if it contains a lot of fruit.
Or, add an extra package of unflavored gelatin to the Jell-O mixture to make sure things set up, which is what Eugenia Dunn did in her cherry salad.
For easy removal, oil the mold first. Helen Corbitt says to rub it with mayonnaise for better flavor.
Allow plenty of time for gelatin salads to set in the fridge. Overnight is always best.
My mother would dip the mold into hot water to loosen it. Then unmold it onto lettuce and get it right back in the fridge.
Helen Corbitt goes a step further and says to run a silver knife around the edges of the pan to loosen it. Then wet your hands and your platter, so the mold can slide onto the plate and you can move it to the center. If your hands or the plate are dry, you might tear the mold.
And Jell-O work involves physics because some ingredients—cherries and peaches and pears, grapes, and apricots—will sink. Whereas apple, bananas, strawberry halves, marshmallows, and nuts float. Ideally, you want a mixture of sinkers and floaters so you see fruit throughout.
Jell-O experts avoid fresh pineapple and use canned. Something to do with the enzymes…
More Jell-O rules you’d like to share?
Glorified Tomato Aspic
Enjoying tomato aspic just might mean you are finally of a certain age. And yet, it’s just molded gazpacho if you think about it, and the sky’s the limit as to what you can toss inside. I went with avocado, artichokes, fresh dill, and minced celery and onion because they were all in my fridge. This salad would be fabulous with some crabmeat or chopped boiled shrimp. Think of it as a molded Bloody Mary without the vodka. Get creative!
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Chill: 1 1/2 hours for first chill, and 4 hours or overnight for second
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
2 cups V-8, tomato juice, or Bloody Mary mix
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Vegetable oil spray or mayonnaise, for greasing the mold
1 cup chopped canned artichoke hearts
1/2 cup chopped avocado
1/4 cup minced celery
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Black pepper, to taste
Dash of hot sauce, if desired
Place the gelatin and water in a large heatproof bowl and whisk until the gelatin is dissolved.
Place the V-8 or tomato juice in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Whisk into the gelatin mixture along with the lemon juice. Place the bowl in the refrigerator and chill until it has thickened slightly, about 1 1/2 hours.
Meanwhile, grease a 4- to 5-cup mold or casserole dish with the oil or mayo.
When the gelatin mixture has the consistency of unbeaten egg whites, fold in the artichokes, avocado, celery, onion, dill, and parsley. Season with black pepper and hot sauce, if desired. Pour the mixture into the mold, and place it in the fridge to set, at least 4 hours, and preferably overnight.
When ready to serve, fill the sink with an inch of hot water. Run a knife around the pan’s edges, dip the mold into the water for a few seconds, then invert onto a serving plate. Garnish with fresh dill.
Eugenia’s Bing Cherry Jell-O Salad
This delightful family recipe, which pairs well with ham or roasted turkey, has some gray areas because people through the years have added their touches or used what they find in the store. And that’s the evolving nature of congealed salads. The can sizes decrease, our tastes changes, and there are fewer flavors of Jell-O than there used to be! Use this as a blueprint, and vary as you like!
Makes 8 to 12 servings
2 packages (3 ounces each) dark cherry gelatin
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
2 cans (15 ounces each) Bing or dark pitted cherries
1 can (20 ounces) crushed pineapple
Water as needed to make 2 cups total liquid
1 cup broken walnuts or pecans
Vegetable oil spray or mayonnaise, for greasing the mold
Mayonnaise and whipped cream, for serving
Place the gelatins in a large heatproof bowl. Open the cans of cherries and pineapple, and drain, saving the juice. Set the fruit aside.
Measure the cherry juice and pineapple and add enough water to make 2 cups. Pour this into a saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil.
Whisk the hot liquid into the gelatin until the gelatin has dissolved. Fold in the cherries, pineapple, and walnuts.
Grease an 8- to 10-cup mold or casserole dish with the oil or mayo. Pour the gelatin mixture into the mold, and place in the refrigerator to set, preferably overnight.
When ready to serve, fill the sink with an inch of hot water. Run a knife around the pan’s edges, dip the mold into the water for a few seconds, then invert onto a serving plate. For serving, whip cream and add an equal part mayonnaise. Place in the center of the gelatin ring and serve.
The 1905 Perfection Salad
The amounts vary, but the ingredients have remained the same in this old classic. It originally called for lemon juice, vinegar, and unflavored gelatin, although some more modern versions call for lemon Jell-O. And the red pepper was canned pimento, but as I had a fresh red pepper, that’s what I used. I loved how it tinted the mold the most beautiful peach color.
Makes 6 servings
Chill: 4 hours or overnight
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups finely shredded cabbage
1 1/2 cups finely chopped celery
1/4 cup minced red bell pepper
Vegetable oil spray or mayonnaise, for greasing the mold
Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a large heatproof bowl. Let stand 1 minute. Whisk in the boiling water until the gelatin dissolves.
Stir in the sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, and salt. Place the bowl in the fridge to chill until it is the consistency of unbeaten egg whites, about 45 minutes.
Fold in the cabbage, celery, and red pepper. Grease a 6-cup mold or casserole dish with the oil or mayo. Pour the gelatin mixture into the mold, and chill at least 4 hours, or until firm.
When ready to serve, fill the sink with an inch of hot water. Run a knife around the pan’s edges, dip the mold into the water for a few seconds, then invert onto a serving plate.
Coming Thursday for BTL Paid Subscribers: The Good Stuff
Cinnamon Rolls! Crazy good, dump-everything-in-one-bowl cinnamon rolls. My kind of simple recipe. Have a good week! - xo, Anne