Monday, April 4, 2016

Maryellen's Molded Salad

The one you've all been waiting for!

You probably should have all seen this coming.

Some objects, fashions or foods are just so emblematic of a time period that it's difficult to imagine what life would've looked like back then without it. Take the poodle skirt: a fashion fad that's become so essential to the modern memory of the 1950's that it shows up in every movie, show and 18 inch playline doll collection that focuses on the period, even if it's not strictly accurate to include it every single time. At least American Girl came up with a plausible explanation for Maryellen owning an outfit that was generally more of a teenage fad!

Molded gelatin creations are the poodle skirt of food when it comes to the 50's, alongside diner fare, TV dinners, and a number of other less than healthy options. Some period recipes sound down right upsetting, and at first glance, this recipe doesn't really sound like it's going to be any different. It's got a weird combination of ingredients, doesn't exactly look too visually appealing, but believe it or not, this is actually an old family favorite that's remembered fondly by those who had it before.

I know that sounds strange, but trust me, this one is going to surprise you.

We've talked before about molded gelatin or gelatin-esque foods before, but with the exception of flummery and a brief overview of the history of Jell-O, we never really tackled it in depth. Although they're often associated with the 50's, people have been making wiggly desserts, side dishes and main courses using gelatin for centuries. Specific recipes might be unique to the 1950's, but the concept of suspending weird bits of fruit, vegetables, meat, and literally anything in between is definitely not a mid 20th century invention. Did you know Jell-O was actually patented in 1845?

Yep, that's right. Although people have been making gelatin treats since the 1400's, it was originally something that only the wealthy could enjoy. Boiling down animal bones and connective tissue, combining it with your flavors and other ingredients and letting it chill to set up wasn't exactly the easiest or most budget friendly way of getting dinner on the table, so being able to whip it out meant you had money, and a talented cook to prepare it for you. Often, these creations were more about presentation than flavor, but some of them were actually enjoyed by people... right?

The product that would become Jell-O was created to speed this process up and make it accessible to middle class and even potentially lower class cooks. People liked it because it was a way to stretch their food budget: the Jell-O itself was cheap, and could help extend the shelf life of other foods by putting them in it. This was also appealing to a population that had been scared straight (sort of) by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and now cared passionately about food safety... if not always worker's, women's or minority rights. We're getting there.

So, why the 50's?

Even though Jell-O products, recipes and knock-offs enjoyed a consistent rise in popularity from the early 1900's up until the end of World War II, they forced their way onto the scene even more after VJ Day. Companies that had produced canned rations for the military realized they didn't want to end the good thing they had going, and decided they could convince people to keep buying their products by starting to push molded gelatin recipes using them. Their marketing strategy targeted the busy housewife, promising today's working woman on the go that this would be a simple thing to prepare for her family, no matter how busy she was raising the children, doing chores, or even - gasp! - working somewhere outside of the home! It was also a way of embracing premade products without being "lazy", because this took more effort than just reheating the contents of a can. By doctoring it up with other ingredients, you were still putting in effort in the kitchen. This doesn't just apply to Jell-O products, but because they were easy to color and shape to meet any theme or purpose, they stayed in favor until the late 60's.

The recipe I'm working with comes from the same recipe collection I talked about in my Christmas cookie post this past year. My dad's mother compiled a bunch of family favorite recipes to give to my mom as a wedding gift, and it's a really interesting cache of largely mid century recipes that at one point were in her regular rotation. There are a couple weird sounding ones, like molded shrimp mousse and ham loaf, and of course there's a cheeseball.

The one that caught my attention is the recipe for molded salad, which is in the vegetables and salad section, even though there aren't really any vegetables in it. At all. Ah, the 50's.

Part of the reason why this one caught my attention is because when I started brainstorming ideas for 50's recipes to try out, my mom mentioned this one and guaranteed me that this was something everyone used to really like. I was skeptical to say the least. The list of ingredients don't really sound like they're going to go well together, and I definitely wasn't sure how this all was going to go down.

You start off by taking one packet each of lemon and lime Jell-O, which you dissolve in two cups of boiling water.

Next, you blend in one cup each of mayonnaise and cream. This is something you should definitely do with a whisk, because otherwise, it looks pretty chunky and gross, and is actually sort of hard to incorporate.

You then add in your other ingredients: one cup of drained canned, crushed pineapple, one cup of chopped nuts (I used walnuts) and two tablespoons of horseradish.

You pour this into a Jell-O mold...

And leave it to chill in the fridge for a couple hours. My grandma's recipe doesn't say for how long, so I just left it alone for a long time and checked on it periodically to see if it was ready to come out.

Getting it out of the mold was a little bit trickier. I hate trying to get things out of stuff like this, because there's always a chance it can tear on you or otherwise totally fall apart. To help it along, I soaked it in warm water for a while.

Unfortunately, a while turned out to be a little too long, because it started to melt when I pulled it out. I put it back in the fridge for about a half hour, and it solidified back up, so know that you're not totally out of luck if that happens to you.

Okay, so it still looks... not exactly appetizing. I know, I know. For some reason, the top of mine got a bunch of the Jell-O on top, and most of the nuts seemed to have been floating at the top of the mold. Still, I personally find this more appealing than most of the savory gelatins I've seen people trying to push in period advertisements. There's something kind of unsettling about seeing shrimp suspended in mostly clear, bright red Jell-O.

But I promise, stick with me!

Okay, so how did it taste? "Do we even want to know?" you may be wondering.

Pretty good, actually. It's not something you need a huge slice of to be satisfied, but it's fruity, slightly spicy/sour from the horseradish, and the texture's not off putting at all. It's not rubbery like a traditional Jell-O because of the cream and mayo, so it's a little softer, and, well, creamy!

It's unlike anything I've ever had before, and while it's not my new favorite food, I did actually really enjoy it. I totally see why this is something that made it past the 60's with my grandmother, because it might seem pretty weird, but it's a good appetizer, dessert or side dish. It's easy to make, easy to store, and isn't too heavy, so you're not going to spoil your meal or make yourself sick eating this alongside other family favorites.

My loyal taste testers were really not sure what to make of it either at first - with the exception of my mother, who seems to be the only family member who remembers eating this on a regular basis in the 80's and early 90's - but most of them tried it, and with the exception of one person who doesn't like horseradish, everyone was really pleasantly surprised. I even got a few comments about being willing to try it again, maybe next St. Patrick's Day, since the Jell-O does come out pretty green.

So, there you have it. Once again, the slightly scary sounding historical recipe actually turned out to be pretty darn tasty. Don't get me wrong, I totally understand and acknowledge that this might be a fluke, or at least unusual and that there probably are a lot of truly horrific, barely or not at all palatable gelatin creations out there, but I really can't stress enough how good this was. Unusual, interesting, definitely not something I'd see myself ordering on a restaurant menu sight unseen (or even after looking at it...), but it was good, and I'd definitely make it again.

Seems like kind of a fun thing to spring on people unexpected, doesn't it?

Proof that you can't judge a book by its cover, or a gelatin by how freaky it looks.


  1. Wow, I had been wondering about this since it seems there's no escaping from the '50s (or '60s!) without them! Now you've made me maybe wanna give it a go, darn it!

    When I hear about food from this era, I can't help but think about this hilarious book which also has a hilarious website.

    Once again, your posts are so charming and inviting. You really capture a beautiful detailed scene so well in each photograph!

    1. Oh cool! Thanks for the links, I will definitely be checking these out. Maybe a regrettable food will need to make an appearance in a future post. ;D

      Glad you enjoy! And let me know if you try any out yourself, I'd love to hear more people's thoughts on stuff like this, haha.

  2. Wow, that is certainly green, isn't it? I don't think I've ever seen a non-dessert jello IRL, so I'm a little fascinated by these (and both tempted and afraid to try one).

    Interesting to hear some personal history behind them as well!

    1. Well, if you do try one, I'd obviously recommend this one, ahaha. I know it looks weird, but it really does taste good!

  3. Oh my gosh! My gramma makes this for EVERY HOLIDAY. She makes it in a big casserole dish, so it doesn't have that slightly-creepy jello mold charm, but my family is super into "green stuff salad." I've never eaten it, tragically, because I'm a vegetarian now and was picky about my jello as a kid.

    1. Oh man, really?? The same kind? Do you know where she got it from? The recipe we have doesn't cite a particular cookbook or anything, and I'd love to know where it's from. That's so cool, this seriously made my day to hear, haha. :D

    2. Oh, I really have no idea where she got it... I can find out, though! She doesn't use a recipe since she's been making it for at least as long as I've been alive. (So, 22 years, for like three holidays/year. That means... at least 66 jello salads O.o ) I'm sure there was a recipe at one point in time, though!

    3. Well let me know if you do find out the origin, I'm still just so amused someone else ate this ahaha. And 66 jello salads is pretty impressive!

  4. Thanks for the walk down memory lane! Funny how it seems to have slipped the memories of other family members. I definitely remember this being a staple at summer gatherings on the Cape. It will always be an iconic recipe from Grandma B's cache.

    1. I'm glad you remembered it! Otherwise, I probably never would have given it a second look, haha.