Were Jell-O salads an act of prefeminist vengeance?

Gif: Allison Corr
FeaturesFeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.

About a year ago, a new twig of speculative history sprouted on Tumblr and quickly migrated to Twitter, the source of all human knowledge.

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As far as feminist theories go, this one was pretty enchanting. What if all of postwar cooking was a secret feminist revolution? What if women, forced back into housewifery after their free and independent World War II Rosie the Riveter years, channeled their energy and creativity into feeding their husbands some of the most disgusting food ever conceived by modern cooks as revenge? What else could possibly be the impetus behind something like Sea Dream Salad, a concoction of cucumbers, vinegar, onion juice, and cayenne pepper suspended in lime Jell-O and topped with Hellmann’s mayonnaise? Well, okay, all that creativity, verve, and energy could have been put to more practical use in campaigns for equal pay, reproductive justice, and universal childcare—and they would be—but when a woman is stuck all by herself in a ranch house in the suburbs with Jell-O as her only weapon, she does what she’s got to do.

The only problem with this enchanting theory is that once I started to look into it, it turned out to have no basis in fact. Unless, of course, the rage was so sublimated that no one realized it was there. Which is also a possibility. But as far as the historical record is concerned, women were active participants in the cult of the Jell-O salad. Figuring out new ways to gussy up gelatin with various fruits, vegetables, and condiments in previously inconceivable combinations became an expression of creativity. Or as one psychologist who worked with ad agencies in the 1950s put it (and was quoted in American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way, a new book by Paul Freedman):

Thesis: “I’m a housewife.”

Antithesis: “I hate drudgery.”

Synthesis: “I’m creative.”

Of course it would be very bad for the ad agencies and the companies that hired them to sell prepackaged convenience foods like cake mix and Jell-O if the women of America began expressing their creativity through cooking and baking from scratch. But what if women prepared the cake mixes and Jell-O according to the instructions on the back of the boxes—which, the ads assured them, was way faster and more painless than doing all that tiresome measuring and sifting—and then added their own personal touches? That would be creative enough to satisfy everyone!

But then again, why did women have to get creative with convenience food anyway? Wasn’t the point of convenience food the, well, convenience? Puritanism still ran strong in the American character, and many women considered overreliance on these products to be cheating, and therefore shameful. A psychological study published in the Journal Of Marketing in 1950 showed this quite starkly, as the great food historian Laura Shapiro points out in her book Something From The Oven: Reinventing Dinner In 1950s America. The study distributed two grocery lists to 100 women—50 received one version and 50 received the other—and asked them to write down their impressions of the shopper who had created the list. The lists were identical except for one thing: the first list had Nescafé instant coffee while the second had Maxwell House ground coffee. The Nescafé shopper was considered lazy, slovenly, and “an old maid probably.” In the second phase of the study, the women received two more shopping lists that were the same as the first set, except that both had Blueberry Fill Pie Mix. This time, Shapiro writes, the surveys demolished both shoppers.

Anyway, as Shapiro discovered by reading several decades’ worth of the long-running Boston Globe household hints column Confidential Chats, many women didn’t really mind cooking that much. They shared plenty of recipes for desserts made from scratch. If they did use convenience products, like canned soups, it was as a shortcut, not as a full replacement for a conventionally cooked meal.

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However, the food companies needed women to buy more convenience food because the profit margins were so much higher. So, what to do? They hit on a process they called “glamorizing”: encouraging cooks to improve products from mixes by adding a few extra fancy ingredients: a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a splash of sherry. Or how about drenching a dessert in liqueur and setting it on fire, just like the finest French chefs did?

They began spreading the gospel of glamorizing through cookbooks that they produced themselves, and newspaper ads, and collaborations with the editors of prominent women’s magazines on recipes and features about the death of old-fashioned cooking. Here was a modern way of cooking for modern times. Now anyone with a can opener could re-create the French classics!

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A prime target for glamorization was Jell-O. It did, after all, have deep aristocratic roots, both in its savory (aspic) and sweet (elaborate molded gelatin desserts) forms. Earlier generations of cooks had to spend hours in the kitchen boiling meat and bones and calves’ feet into stocks, straining out all the solids, clarifying them with egg whites, and then cooling them into aspic in which other foods could be suspended. But after Charles Knox invented powdered gelatin in 1889, all it took to make a clear, jiggly block was some boiling water. In the ensuing years, the Knox gelatin company published many editions of a cookbook called Dainty Desserts For Dainty People. The cover of the first edition from 1896 proclaimed “No boiling, no straining, no trouble, no failure.” (That same cover also featured a horribly racist illustration.) The book itself contained mostly adaptations of earlier recipes that used the gelatin for a little extra stability: ice cream, whipped cream, Bavarian cream, mousse. But there was an ominous sign of things to come, something called Salad in Jelly. “Make any of the ordinary salads,” the recipe instructed, “such as chicken, veal, lobster, shrimp, or nice red tomatoes sliced with a little green, as celery, lettuce, etc., mixed through here and there.” Then cooks were supposed to take a bowl of lemon-flavored jelly, cut it open, and nestle the salad inside.

For some reason, this recipe captured American women’s imaginations. The 1905 edition of Dainty Desserts For Dainty People included a recipe for Perfection Salad, attributed to Mrs. John E. Cooke, who won a $100 prize for her efforts. The salad part was chopped celery, cabbage, and red bell peppers. The “perfection” was achieved when all the ingredients were magically suspended in gelatin without the surgical cuts required by Salad in Jelly. The secret was that the vegetables were added just as the gelatin was beginning to set. It was artistic because of the way the vegetables were arranged in the clear gelatin. It was just like the aspics of classic French cuisine! It became the prototype for the next 75 years of savory foods suspended in jiggly substances.

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By now Jell-O had arrived on the scene. Like Coca-Cola, it had originally been intended as medicine: in the case of Jell-O, a cough remedy. But very soon its inventor, Pearle Wait, and his wife, May, who had come up with the name Jell-O, realized it worked much better as a fruit-flavored dessert. Best of all, it came in colors. As early as 1902, Jell-O had become the featured ingredient in recipes that were syndicated in newspapers across the country. At first these recipes were for simple desserts, like Jell-O Snow Pudding.

Screenshot: San Francisco Call, December 19, 1902 (Library of Congress)
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But by the 30s, Jell-O had gone wild, mixing sweet and savory with abandon. The Greater Jell-O Recipe Book had a full range of recipes for every course:

Entrees that look and taste different and (secret) may be made with yesterday’s left-overs! Salads that are new departures in taste thrills! Desserts that look like you’ve been hobnobbing with famous chefs—yet they’re so easy to make, you can make them up while you’re thinking about it! And (how does this sound to your budget?) many Jell-O dishes are so economical, you’ll marvel!

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Screenshot: The Greater Jell-O Recipe Book (Michigan State University Library)

Although Jell-O was supposed to be eaten by the entire family, by the ’50s it was understood that Jell-O salad was “female” food. “[The] personal touch, the element that made the meal visibly feminine, came in dollops of pure sentimentality that had long been associated with ladies at table,” Shapiro writes. “Whipped cream, maraschino cherries, quivering gelatin salads—by midcentury the link between femaleness and weird, gaudy dishes of no recognizable provenance was a culinary assumption as inevitable as the pairing of salt and pepper.” Men, by contrast, ate giant slabs of meat and heaps of potatoes; the men who cooked were French chefs and were part of a great culinary tradition. By serving their husbands Jell-O salad, women were forcing them to eat girly food, which could possibly be considered emasculating and maybe a form of revenge against the drudgery of housewifery.

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But I don’t really think so. Women made Jell-O salads because they were easy and because they looked pretty (and jiggled!) and because they didn’t require turning on the oven, and maybe because they were a handy place to hide leftovers.

Jell-O salads have mostly gone out of fashion in favor of salads made with just vegetables, which we now understand to be healthier than “salads” filled with sugar and mayonnaise and cream cheese, and old pictures of “glamorized” dishes have become the object of horrified fascination, not unlike gas-guzzling cars with tail fins: Did we really live this way? It’s not that Jell-O tastes any different. It’s just that we taste it differently after years of being told that processed food is evil and that we should be able to identify the origins of everything on our plate (with certain exceptions, mostly desserts).

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But the dichotomy between male and female food continues. As Paul Freedman points out in American Cuisine: And How It Got This Way, “The notion that women really don’t like food, or prefer desserts, is still strong.” And Jell-O salads do persist in particularly churchy parts of the country such as the upper Midwest and Utah (where Jell-O is the official state snack). It should be noted that many of these areas are also particularly well-known for their passive-aggressiveness.

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About the author

Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.