Jell-O changed everything

Photo: Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn

Photo: Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn

Blurring the line between dessert and salad

By Eric Dregni

What is salad? Norwegians have a long tradition of salads with potatoes, cucumbers, beets, and maybe green beans, apples and walnuts with fresh dill or chives chopped on top. Small slices of herring, anchovies, or salmon made this a complete, refreshing meal in the heat of the summer. Soon grapes, mandarin oranges, and chunks of cheese were added and held together with extra rich sour cream. On the side, perhaps an open-faced sandwich with a slice of persesylte (head cheese), essentially pork parts held together by stiff gelatin (before the genesis of Jell-O).

Powdered gelatin wasn’t patented until 1845 by Peter Cooper and not marketed widely until the early 1900s with Jell-O cookbooks and endorsements by actress Ethel Barrymore. In the meantime, Scandinavian desserts used cornstarch for a sweetened soufflé, such as Krem (grape juice pudding) with grape juice, cornstarch, and sugar and served cold with whipped cream, according to Original Scandinavian Recipes, and “citron dessert” with lemon rind, butter, corn starch and beaten egg whites. A recipe for “glorified rice” calls for rice, beaten eggs, sugar (preferably powdered), vinegar, pineapple, and whipped cream for a tall, silky sweet. Porridge, or grøt, was beginning the transformation from main course to dessert with recipes like jordbaer grøt (strawberry porridge) using tapioca and egg whites for a fluffy pudding.

Then came Jell-O and church basement potlucks would never be the same. These revolutionary Scandinavians challenged the definition of “salad,” which was once loosely based on vegetables, to new heights. All the above ideas – aspic, creamy porridge, fruit soup, and salad – were held together through the magic of Jell-O and then folded into a ring mold for added decoration.

Jell-O salad was born because who wants to wait until after the meal for “dessert”? Typically, cooks added canned or fresh fruit and maybe colored marshmallows for some pizzazz. A dollop of fresh whipped cream on top was soon replaced with Cool Whip when introduced in 1967, containing less than 2 percent of milk product and mostly water, corn syrup, and vegetable oil.

Richer cream cheese is used in “Ambrosia Salad,” a classic Scandinavian recipe calls for lime Jell-O, pineapple, cream cheese, and whipping cream. One recipe says, “Drain the pineapple – the less liquid to have it set. Mix Jell-O with water. When it starts setting, then whip it by itself. Whip the cream. Whip the cream cheese, and whip them all together with the pineapple and let set over night.”

My grandmother Evie often whipped up her “Easy 24-Hour Salad with French vanilla Jell-O” that called for “cans of peaches, pears, mandarin oranges, fruit cocktail, pineapple chunks and fresh green grapes. Mix in with pudding and one pint of whipped cream and store in refrigerator overnight.” Instant pudding had also been welcomed as “salad.”

Perhaps the most famous pudding salad is “Pistachio Pineapple Delight” with canned fruit, white marshmallows, and cottage cheese (or just Cool Whip) and pistachio pudding. This green concoction earned the name of “Watergate Salad” because it gained fame the same year as the Republican break-in scandal in Washington in 1975.

Church basement dinners were filled with colorful, calorie-filled inventions that soon incorporated grated carrots, cheese, coconut, pretzels, and sometimes sherbet, which usually has gelatin in it. A more colorful recipe comes from my grandmother that she named, “Macaroon Frozen Dessert” with 18 crumbled coconut macaroons mixed with whipped cream (or Cool Whip), vanilla, sugar and nuts and spread in a 9” x 13” pan. “Add sherbet by spoonful, alternating colors. Put remaining whipped cream mixture on top and place in freezer.”

While this recipe dates from the 1960s, two newer recipes stretch the salad moniker to its limits. “Cookie Salad” calls for fudge-striped shortbread cookies, mandarin oranges, vanilla pudding, cool whip, and buttermilk. Whereas, “Snickers Salad” whips together standard Snickers chocolate bars, tart Granny Smith apples, and dollops of Cool Whip. If that’s salad, what’s for dessert?

Read the book!

This article is part of a series of excerpts from Eric Dregni’s “Vikings in the Attic: In search of Nordic America.” Dregni examines the Scandinavian influences on the Midwest with his trademark humor. “Vikings in the Attic” is sold at Scandinavian stores around the U.S. ISBN: 978-0-8166-6743-7

This article originally appeared in the Mar. 23, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.