THE RAINBOW TABLE WAS ALWAYS THE BEST part of the Dingus family reunion. In the big park at little Buffalo Gap, where the clan gathered annually in the fifties and sixties, there were plenty of entertainments for my siblings and me: a swimming pool in which to rinse off the sweat and dirt, older cousins who would take you doodlebug-hunting and rattlesnake-baiting, and a passel of funny names that we snorted about in secret (Aunt Shorty, Uncle Hurschel, Ina Bob). Still, I was most fascinated by the picnic table that bore what seemed like more Jell-O concoctions than there were living Dinguses: dozens of glimmering Pyrex panfuls, their contents melting slightly under the summer sun. Orange, green, yellow, red; coolly translucent or creamily opaque; plain or fruit-choked. Compared with the rest of the food—brown chili, brown beans, brown brownies—they shone in the light like stained-glass windows and, in the children of that era, inspired almost as much reverence, because back then, a portion of Jell-O fit the popular definition of “salad.”
Not until the dawn of the seventies did my generation begin to face reality: A true salad involved fresh produce, preferably of the green persuasion. “Jell-O salad,” we realized, was, like “mild hot sauce,” a Texymoron. This bit of enlightenment—along with more significant cultural shifts, such as the growing demand for organic food—had a chilling effect on our opinion of Jell-O. In response, Jell-O’s parent company rethought the food’s image as a make-ahead dinner salad and ladies’ luncheon specialty. Today, thirty years later, the gelatin giant defines itself as a fun food, more of a child’s snack or a low-calorie indulgence. Funny thing, though—when a loved one dies, we still expect friends to drop by with Jell-O offerings, same as always. We’re nostalgic about it because we grew up with it. Explaining the enduring appeal of something so venerable, so meaningful, and so multipurpose can be as challenging as, well, nailing Jell-O to a tree.
With the possible exception of the casserole, the Jell-O salad was the ne plus ultra of postwar cuisine. The homecoming of our GIs meant the return of their tool-wielding wives and sweethearts to full feminine status, and many women zestfully reapplied themselves to cooking, cleaning, and