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 home decorating. Jell-O’s popularity soared, and it expanded its advertising into television, notably as a sponsor of I Love Lucy. My mother, who as a comely twenty-year-old married my ex-Army captain father in 1947, was one of the millions of her generation to become a professional homemaker. Her preferred Jell-O salad involved bing cherries and pecans in black-cherry Jell-O. She centered the square on a lettuce leaf—you didn’t have to eat that—with a blob of mayonnaise on top (never Miracle Whip; we set the bar high on Mary Ellen Street). This recipe is sometimes called Coke salad because the soft drink can be subbed for the water, but my family would never have squandered a perfectly good Coca-Cola that way.
Those of you with limited exposure to Jell-O cookery may be curling your collective lip right about now, but Mother’s salad is, I assure you, a straightforward concept compared with some of the omnium-gelatum recipes I have been served in my day. I’m not talking about the standbys like Golden Glow, lemon Jell-O enhanced with pieces of carrot and pineapple, and Hawaiian Delight, a pick-your-flavor base studded with maraschino cherries, canned pineapple chunks, sliced bananas, miniature marshmallows, slivered almonds, shredded coconut, mango cubes, and tiny leis. (Just kidding. There weren’t any mango cubes.) Even more jaw-dropping were such creations as a salad combining lime gelatin, tomato juice, cream cheese, onions, and plums. I’ve even heard tell of—brace yourself—barbecue Jell-O. Swear to God. It’s made with a package of lemon flavor as well as tomato sauce, vinegar, horseradish, salt, and pepper; you chill it, mince it, and sprinkle the bits over salad (the leafy green kind) to accompany brisket or ribs. But I present the Chill-O Award to a dish my friend Lorne Loganbill found in Feeder’s Digest, a 1977 cookbook from the little town of Canadian. A version of Hawaiian Delight, it’s topped with a cooked frosting of sugar, flour, egg, butter, pineapple juice, and whipping cream. Aloha!
Processed gelatin has been around since the early nineteenth century, but back then it was unflavored and came in sheets. One hapless fellow marketed a flavored powder in 1845, but it failed miserably. In 1897 a man named Pearle Wait, of LeRoy, New York, had better luck. His fruit-flavored gelatin tasted good and didn’t require chilling, though the thickening took awhile (the concoction was christened “Jell-O” by his wife, whose name was, appropriately, May Wait). Lacking capital, he sold the rights, which eventually ended up the property of a local company, Genesee Pure Foods. Large-scale production began in 1900, and the four flavors—strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon—sold for 10 cents a package. Two years later the company racked up a quarter-million dollars in sales.
Timing is everything, of course; ask anyone who’s tried to get three supper dishes ready at the same time. Housewives and chefs embraced the new product in part because of its convenience. But a major reason for Genesee’s success was its commitment to advertising. The company invested heavily in large print ads—created by such now-renowned illustrators as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish—that emphasized the simplicity of preparation and featured smiling mothers and children (notably the Jell-O Girl, a winsome blonde with a Dutch bob). Jell-O’s bigwigs (bigwiggles?) also boosted sales by associating Jell-O with wealth. In the nineteenth century, gelatin had been the purview of the rich because rendering it from calves’ hooves was a complicated procedure requiring several servants. The company milked this upper-class connection in ads that showed elegant females serving Jell-O in champagne flutes at tables set with silver, linens, and tapers.
Gelatin-based fare—all of which quickly came to be known as Jell-O—was considered a classy comestible well into the seventies, and it was a staple of regional cookbooks. A 1949 tome notes that gelatin is “peculiarly appropriate to Texas, coming as it does from cows.” Even New York-born Helen Corbitt, the longtime doyenne of Neiman Marcus’s famed Zodiac Room, in Dallas, approved of Jell-O, especially as a tonic for the Texas heat and an outlet for housebound wives’ creativity. “There is nothing quite as cool as a shimmering molded salad,” she wrote in one of her cookbooks, promising amateur chefs that “you may turn out some works of art as your imagination runs riot.” And sure enough, the domestic engineers of the era found in “gel cookery”—as one of Jell-O’s beleaguered rivals put it—the same kind of creative satisfaction that their counterparts of a century before had derived from quilting. Consider the recipe for Gammy’s Broken Glass Torte. It involves making separate pans of three Jell-O colors, cubing the gelatin, mixing the cubes with pineapple juice and whipped cream, pouring it all into a graham-cracker crust, chilling it, then slicing and serving it to oohs and ahs (and, presumably, grandchildren).
Of course, as anyone who has ever been hospitalized knows, unadulterated Jell-O is also standard sickroom fare. My colleague Patricia Sharpe recalls that, when she was little, “if I was peaked, Mother would whip up a batch. To this day, if I’m flu-ish or off my feed, I make Jell-O.” Frankly, I was taken aback by this remark, as Pat, Texas Monthly’s food editor, has the most refined culinary sensibilities of any native Texan I know. But she went on to explain, “I don’t even have to eat it, and I feel better.”
This, I think, is how many people of my generation feel about Jell-O. We have fond memories of it, but not too many of us actually eat it anymore. Certainly our strict vegetarian members don’t, since it is, after all, an animal byproduct. And the slogan “J-E-L-L-O,” which dates back to 1934, has yielded to one that acknowledges the nation’s eating-light obsession: “There’s always room for Jell-O.” But today Jell-O is much more than mere food. My kids know it mainly as a source of entertainment; when they were small, we used molds to make Jell-O Easter eggs (they bounce!). Teenagers eat it to help their nails grow long, or make a paste of it to temporarily dye their hair. Some diners use it as a vehicle for mounds of whipped cream (or faux-dairy Cool Whip, also a product of Jell-O’s megacorp owner, Kraft Foods). A few folks have dived into giant vats of Jell-O; many more mix it with liquor and down it half-gelled as shots. And the stuff is a veteran performer: It has appeared in everything from Tom and Jerry cartoons to Seinfeld episodes. There’s the scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation involving Aunt Bethany, green Jell-O, and cat food, and—less famous but my favorite—the snippet in Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 in which every elderly widow in town visits the hamlet’s most eligible old bachelor, each bearing a container of homemade congealed this or that.
One of those containers surely holds Lime Jell-O Surprise. This deceptively pretty dish—you know, that mint-green slab that’s a standard consolation casserole—may be beloved of blue-hairs, but it will always be feared by small fry. For one thing, despite its candy color, its ingredients include vinegar and salt, so it treads dangerously close to aspic territory. Also, the recipe calls for cottage cheese, which renders the Jell-O opaque and hides various unwelcome ingredients (hence the “surprise” in the name). I remember my first bite of my aunt Merle’s version, which I quickly relocated to my napkin; my taste buds screamed, “Not sweet!” and then, “Even worse!” as I bit into a piece of pimiento, which lurked in my serving along with celery and carrots—and pecans. When it comes to Texas cooking, there’s always room for pecans.