Jello salad: two words that can strike fear into anyone, conjuring up thoughts of a terrifying composition of jello, fruit, nuts, cottage cheese and even savory bits like pickled vegetables, eggs, tuna and mayonnaise ― all suspended, nay, cryogenically frozen in time and space, in a jiggling, gelatinous, technicolor mold.
As it turns out, our childhood aversion to jello salad shouldn’t simply be attributed to picky eating, but instead has its roots in instinct, evolution and cultural conditioning.
How Jello Salad Came To Be
As its star rose in the 1950s, Jell-O (the brand, as opposed to “jello,” the term that later arose referring to any make of powdered gelatin dessert) was a simple, colorful, fun and tasty dessert that became synonymous with post-war America, the nuclear age and the baby boom. For mothers, many of whom were part of a new generation of working women, Jell-O gelatin powder, which just had to be mixed with hot water and left in the fridge for a few hours to set up, was a quick and easy way to provide a snack or dessert for the kids. In an era where refrigerators in every household were still a novelty and a status symbol, Jell-O was marketed to modern moms as another way to celebrate their upward mobility, make their lives easier and feel very much of the moment.
Jello molds ― plastic forms into which molten jello could be poured, to harden into gravity-defying, edible shapes ― were a way to make the minimal effort of jello seem all the more miraculous. Then someone had the terrible idea to start plopping other foods into those molds, thus beginning a long, dark chapter in America’s culinary history.
This was no longer jello, but a brutal betrayal of our childhood hopes and dreams. It was a jello salad, meaning it was jello that could not be salvaged. No amount of dissecting it, of attempting to separate that precious lime jello from the carrot shavings, the raisins, the canned tuna flakes or the cottage cheese stratum, would restore it to what it once was.
Issue #1: Texture
Food developer Barb Stuckey, author of Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good, told HuffPost that part of the problem is the mouthfeel, or texture, of foods that feel like they shouldn’t go together.
“Jello already has an interesting texture,” Stuckey said, “and one that normally wouldn’t occur in nature. It’s cold, slippery and jiggly, and it goes from solid to liquid in the mouth. And that it’s not fatty, like most melty foods are (think ice cream), is just disconcerting.”
For kids especially, the sweetness and color help them get past any mouthfeel heebie-jeebies. “But introduce something that’s suspended or hanging in this already strangely congealed substance,” Stuckey said, “and then it just gets a little too weird for a lot of palates.”
Issue #2: Learned Behavior
Dr. Rachel Herz, a specialist on the psychology of smell and author of the books That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion and Why You Eat What You Eat, suggests there’s some learned instinct at play, too.
“One of the biggest issues with deciding what we want to eat is visual,” she told HuffPost. “And it might be that in some way we associate jello, being wobbly and jiggly, with things that could be contaminated, like food that’s slippery because it’s gone bad.” (This could be why Gareth Keenan doesn’t trust the way it moves.)
Obviously, we can learn to override these instincts and enjoy jello, but the inconsistent texture of jello salad may ring our instinctual warning bells.
“We know if we eat something and it’s consistent in texture then it’s probably OK,” Herz said. “But inconsistent qualities are signals that it could be contaminated. If you bit into something soft and found something unexpectedly hard in it” ― like, say, a raisin in jello ― “you might think something was wrong.” So the squishy, chunky, slippery combo of jello salad could feel like a threat to our very survival.
Issue #3: Fear Of The Unknown
Stuckey cites neophobia ― the fear of the unknown when it comes to food ― as another major factor in our childhood revulsion to jello salad. “Neophobia makes you suspect of food for evolutionary reasons,” she said. Basically, you want to know what you’re putting in your mouth, and you’re wary of the unfamiliar. And jello salad, with all those strange bits and pieces of WTF hidden in gelatin, is a neophobe’s worst nightmare.
Ole Mouritsen, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark and co-author (with Klavs Styrbæk) of Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste, told HuffPost that for children, neophobia starts at around 2 to 3 years of age, when evolutionarily, we young hominids start to venture from the proverbial nest. “The farther we are from our parents, the more we have to be on alert,” he said. So neophobia, which generally peaks in childhood and starts to wane by our teenage years, is a healthy practice for little kids who want to stay alive.
Still, Mouritsen suspects that being repulsed by jello salad is more learned than evolutionary behavior. “Children develop preferences as a collective phenomenon,” he explained. “If another friend says, ‘This is disgusting,’ it’s contagious. The same is true with adults. If someone says, ‘This fish tastes weird,’ everyone at the table will agree.”
So to the first adults in the room who finally put their forks down, pointed to the raisins, carrots and coconut shavings in their jello and said, “This is disgusting!” thus ending America’s decades-long obsession with jello salads, generations of children ― and quite a few grown-ups ― salute you.