Coagulated salad has a strange staying power. It feels safe to say that in 2012, Jell-O salad is a weird dish, one that many would call out of fashion, yet somehow still ends up on Thanksgiving tables across the country. The dish in its most general sense consists of assorted foods thrown into a Jell-O mold. That can mean anything from mandarin oranges to ham, sour cream and cabbage.
A few years ago, the Epicurious blog referred to Jell-O salad as "the Nehru jacket of the Thanksgiving menu: Outdated, and unlikely to come back into fashion." This month, Bon Appetit posted an image-heavy piece on "When Molds Ruled The Menu" and Buzzfeed found "39 Things That Should Never Be Cooked In Clear Jell-O." Needless to say, these were not glowing articles on the craft.
Jell-O salad actually goes back quite some time (and for the purpose of this story, we're focusing on American Jell-O dishes rather than French aspic dishes). In 1904, a recipe called "Perfection Salad" became popular. You could even say that it went viral, early 20th-century style. The images of the salad might look rather horrendous (cabbage! green olives! optional mayonnaise!), but thanks to a third place prize in a cooking contest with Fannie Farmer as the judge, the recipe gathered staying power for decades. As the 20th century continued, the growing popularity of women's magazines and the industrialized food industry created a perfect storm for Jell-O salad recipes to take off.
Then you get to the 1960s, when the salads became so popular that Jell-O introduced various vegetable flavors such as celery, Italian salad and seasoned tomato. These have since been discontinued.
It wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that since those decades in which Jell-O salad recipes were all the rage, the popularity of coagulated salad has declined. Yet, in many communities, Jell-O salad isn't an outdated dish or past its prime. I originally set out to trace the evolution -- or devolution -- of Jell-O salad and find out at what point it went from trendy to pariah. But I soon encountered a decent amount of resistance to this premise, prompting me to re-think my thesis. Carolyn Wyman, author of the book "Jell-O: A Biography," writes in an email:
If you’re tracking food trends via cookbooks and high-end restaurants in hipster urban enclaves, then yes, it may seem like Jell-O salads are long gone...the latest food trends, in my opinion, are not indicative of what the vast majority of average people are actually eating, otherwise there would be no Spam, Cool Whip, Cheez Whiz etc. as there so clearly is (thank God!).
Wyman's point dovetails with how Janet Myers, Senior Director for Customer Culinary Experience at Kraft Foods, views Jell-O salad. Myers, who has worked with the brand for three decades, believes there's a continuing evolution of Jell-O salads and she thinks that's due to the versatility of the product itself. "It constantly reinvents itself to something that is very popular," she argues. Myers cites the famous Jell-O jigglers in the 1980s as a key milestone in revitalizing the brand in a decade when Jell-O salad wasn't all the rage anymore. "Our 800 number was so busy," she recalls.
Wyman believes that part of the appeal of Jell-O salad is that it takes the curse off of eating vegetables. "I actually think Jell-O today might do well to advertise simple Jell-O salad recipes to young moms who are trying to get their kids to eat more veggies made with Sugar-Free Jell-O," Wyman writes. "That’s what Michelle Obama would be talking about if she really wanted to make a dent in childhood obesity and get kids to eat all those veggies she’s growing at the White House."
Wyman admits that Americans’ greater comfort level with eating salads, compared with the height of Jell-O salad popularity, has probably come at the expense of Jell-O salads. But Myers isn't distraught over the current status of Jell-O salad; the dish is merely taking new forms. Gelatin might not appear on an upcoming cover of Bon Appetit, but it is still getting shared and talked about on newer mediums such as recipe blogs and Pinterest.
One decade ago, Utah named Jell-O the official state snack. Myers acknowledges a regional popularity -- Iowa and Ohio come to mind specifically -- but says that she really does see Jell-O salad fans across the country. Tradition will always play a role, but as people's culinary tastes change, she expects Jell-O to evolve (dare we say, "mold?") to them.
Here are some Jell-O salad images over the years: