In Acquired Tastes, The A.V. Club explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.
Your first bite begins with the familiar burst of squishy, fruity, gelatin cool. The second spoonful brings flavors of strawberry, cucumber, and cottage cheese. Topping it off, a scoop of whipped cream and marshmallows. Americans have long found ways to combine disparate ingredients into a Frankensteined whole. This beloved dish, a relic of the Time-Life recipe collections of yore, lives on today—if you search hard enough.
Behold: the Jell-O salad. It is dessert, it is appetizer, it is cold, it is fruit, it is vegetable. It is a mishmash of soft textures, with the occasional surprise crunch. But mostly it is smooth and sweet, and a staple of family gatherings, especially in the Upper Midwest and Utah.
Gelatin—extracted from the collagen of animal bones—has enjoyed a history as a dessert for at least the last six centuries. It wasn’t until 1897 that cough syrup manufacturer Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked a dessert that incorporated fruit flavoring into powdered gelatin. That product, Jell-O, saw its sales take off in 1902, bolstered in part by its first national advertising campaign in Ladies’ Home Journal, then by sponsoring radio shows like The Jell-O Program With Jack Benny. It was dubbed “America’s Most Famous Dessert,” and eventually it became that rare brand—like aspirin—that had crossed over into the everyday lexicon, leaving competitors like Knox Gelatin in the dust.
As for Jell-O salad, Lynne Galia of parent company Kraft Heinz says the history of the dish is a bit murky, though many old Jell-O print ads and recipe booklets through the years included recipes for Jell-O salads.
There’s plenty of appeal in Jell-O salad. As seen in those old magazine ads, it was an aesthetically impressive dish with centerpiece potential. It was also an early progenitor of the parental tactic to hide healthy vegetables inside a more appealing dish. But there’s perhaps no greater selling point today than nostalgia, where food enjoyed in childhood earns a permanent place in taste memory.
Jell-O salad culture today survives mainly in two places with strong church cultures: Utah and the Upper Midwest. Lutherans in Minnesota have a tradition of making Jell-O salad with canned fruits and mini-marshmallows. In the Utah Mormon community, Jell-O is so popular that the region has been nicknamed the “Jell-O Belt,” and the dessert was named the state’s official snack food in 2001.
“Jell-O salad became popular in Utah for several reasons. One, Mormons have big families and Jell-O was something cheap and easily stored in the pantry for a long time to feed everyone quickly,” explains Valerie Phillips, former food editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. “Secondly, a lot of these families were living on farms where it wasn’t so easy to just go to the store and get some ingredients for a dinner, so it was whatever was in the garden plus these boxes of powder Jell-O.”
Jell-O salad at Mormon family gatherings has its own specific traits: Lime green is the Jell-O flavor of choice. To that, Phillips said, one might add—as her mother-in-law did—crushed pineapples, cottage cheese, plus whipped cream. “You wouldn’t add any water. You just mix it all up and chill it,” Phillips said. “It was a big deal for everyone.”
My own Minnesota family had our go-to, which included the typical marshmallows and fruit pieces, but where it stood out was in its assemblage: a grand, awe-inspiring, multicolored Jell-O steeple. It looked impressive, but the image that resonates is the one of us standing around the kitchen with spoons at the ready. It was one of those child-friendly dishes that you’d never outgrow: It was sweet, it was tart, it was an edible bouncy castle you’d never forget.
With casserole season just around the corner, it may be time to take another look at this classic dessert, going past hilarious old print ads or Weight Watchers cards to actually purchasing a Jell-O box or two to mix with the fruit, vegetable, and/or Cool Whip of your choice. A triumphant Jell-O mold would offer a delicious and thrifty retro addition to your next dinner party, more creative than yet another Caesar salad or flourless chocolate cake. You can find any number of beloved, handed-down recipes on Pinterest or websites like tasteofhome.com or spendwithpennies.com. Or try our suggestion below for your own gateway into the wonderful world of Jell-O salad.
Lime gelatin salad
Recipe inspired by Allrecipes.com
1 (6 oz.) package lime Jell-O
1 (20 oz.) can crushed pineapples, with juice reserved
1 cup cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup mini-marshmallows
1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups whipped cream topping
1. Dissolve Jell-O in 1 cup of boiling water, then add in 1/2 cup of the reserved pineapple juice. Refrigerate for one hour, or until partially set.
2. In a large bowl, blend softened cream cheese with the Jell-O mixture, then fold in crushed pineapples, followed by the whipped cream. Finally, add chopped pecans and marshmallows. Pour into mold and refrigerate until set, about four hours.