Forgotten Foods TM_FF_JELLO_FI_003

Jell-o Fiascos

Why gelatin salads are a food worth forgetting


The title of this column is Forgotten Foods; the idea is that I am showing you recipes that, though wonderful and worthwhile, have become less popular over time — maybe new cooking technology made them obsolete or the ingredients became prohibitively expensive. Maybe tastes just changed. And now, isn’t it wonderful that we can rediscover these foods together?

But there are also the foods from the past that aren’t forgotten as much as willfully shunned. Fermented meats. Tuna-and-potato-chip casseroles. And at the top of that tasteless heap — the gelatin salad.

After all, what screams “bygone food failure” more than those jiggling, day-glo layers of gelatin with savory bits suspended inside, looking like bugs trapped in amber? Except instead of being able to extract the DNA to create dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park, all you can extract from the dehydrated-piss-color lemon-flavored Jell-O is a bit of slick pimento or toothy Chicken of the Sea.

Sigh. My conscience is kicking in. I shouldn’t shit-talk gelatin salads without proper history or recipe testing. I feel like that medium-cool kid who makes fun of the uncool kid even though she knows it’s wrong. I’m just trying to fit in, guys!

The truth is that I have my own, very personal aversion to gelatin beyond the salads. My dislike specifically relates back to one thing: Jell-O “Jigglers” — the fun-shaped bits of Jell-O my mom would put in my lunchbox. Don’t worry mom, you didn’t do anything wrong — I just didn’t like the thick skin that would develop on the Jigglers after a couple of days in the fridge. Some 25 years later, I still have a very visceral memory of that thick bit of gelatin in my mouth. Eugh.

It’s funny, though, that for so many of us gelatin is synonymous with quick-and-easy lunchbox fare. Because, for many years, the process and presentation of gelatin was exactly the opposite. Check out this 1836 recipe from The Young Cook’s Guide, With Practical Observations. It’s for aspic, the gelatin jelly extracted from animal bones:

Put a knuckle of veal into a small stock pot, a knuckle of ham, two calves’ feet, and the trimmings of poultry; season this with onions, carrots, and a bunch of herbs; pour into it half a bottle of white wine, and a ladleful of good broth; set it over the stove till it is reduced to a light glaze, then cover the meat with good broth, throw in two ounces of isinglass, and let it boil for three hours; then strain and clear the jelly with white of eggs.

And that’s what you had to do just to get the raw gelatin to use in another recipe. Oh, and if that process doesn’t already sound unpleasant enough, you should know that isinglass is a collagen removed from fish bladders. (Side note: Isinglass is still sometimes used to clarify wine and beer, which is why you’ll see “Is your wine vegetarian?!” exposes).

Given the work to extract the gelatin from bones, it’s unsurprising that before the late 1800s, gelatin dishes were generally the domain of the wealthy. According to Carolyn Wyman in her book Jell-O: A Biography:

The Duke of Wellington’s Apsley House reportedly had hundreds of [gelatin] molds, and almost as big a kitchen staff to regularly churn out gelatin dishes. Commoners only made them on special occasions or for gifts.

Jell-O salad and veggie-flavored Jell-O

A testament to the popularity of savory Jell-O salads: vegetable-flavored Jell-O.

Finally, in the mid-1800s, inventor Peter Cooper filed the first patent for powdered gelatin (Cooper’s other inventions, incidentally, included an “endless chain” to pull boats, the steam locomotive, and a “musical cradle.”) But gelatin didn’t really take off until the late 1800s, when the unflavored Knox hit the market, followed shortly thereafter by the flavored (and more famous) Jell-O.

But you need more than just readily-available gelatin to make a gelatin salad. So if you’re looking for someone to blame (which, really, aren’t we all?), I suggest Mrs. John E. Cook. Although she wasn’t the first to suspend bits of food in the jiggling stuff, she did popularize one of the first gelatin salad recipes in 1905, when she won a Knox Gelatine recipe contest with “Perfection Salad” (a name that seems like a joke when you see a picture of the salad, featured in the lead image here, which features celery, pimento, and cabbage in slightly murky gelatin).

The popularity of the gelatin salad continued rising over the next decades (apparently, you can improve on Perfection). In her book, Wyman points to several factors that helped gelatin’s success — that during the Depression and wartime rationing, gelatin helped stretch leftovers into full meals; that it was easy to make; and that “In the ‘50s, there wasn’t much else a hostess could produce [other than a Jell-o salad] that was quite as impressive.”

Really, gelatin was the perfect food for 1950s America — homogenized, wholesome (in look if not actual nutritional value), and a twinge futuristic — just the right thing to serve in the Kitchen of Tomorrow. There was a comfort in the gelatin salad’s utter generic perfection. (Genericness that, incidentally, often extended beyond just the look of the salads. One of my favorite recipe names I discovered in a Cox’s Gelatine Recipes booklet was simply “Cold Meat Shape.”)

But you know where this is going — we’ve all seen enough dystopian movies to know that when we’re presented with smiling, uniform genericness, something dark is usually lurking underneath. Gelatin sales began declining in the 60s, thanks to the rising popularity of gourmet and natural foods. (No, seriously — thank you to gourmet and natural foods for this service to society.)

Although Jell-O had a bit of a late-80s renaissance thanks to the aforementioned Jigglers, the gelatin salad seems to remain in “shunned” territory. In this era of DIY everything, I’ve had a hard time finding someone willing to go to bat for a classic, bone-boiling apsic. Even Martha Stewart, the paragon of entertaining, recommends creating you apsic by simply adding gelatin to chicken consomme. The simplicity that gelatin offered is not the same simplicity that appeals to many of us now, when the buzzword is “rustic” not “wobbly.”

A not-so-terrible looking raspberry Jell-O dish

A vintage ad for a “Raspberry Halo Mold” calling for Kraft marshmallows, raspberries, and angel food cake.

This isn’t to say the molded salad is gone. Oh, no — many of us still have grandmothers bringing gummy rings to Thanksgiving dinner or potlucks. Browsing for gelatin salads on Pinterest brings up recipes that are both ironic and sincere. And in 2010, food writer Scarlett Lindeman wrote a piece for The Atlantic about moving to Utah as a child and discovering that gelatin salads were alive and well in Mormon culture.

But I have a confession, dear reader — for all of my rallying against the molded salad, I did find myself surprisingly swayed by some of the recipes I tried. Granted, I tried to focus my search on surprising and unexpected gelatin throw-backs. There’s a rose-petal-infused, brandy-kissed gelatin from 1920’s The Epicurian that I have become obsessed with as a summer dessert. A simple, savory tomato aspic is really wonderful on a hot day. Hell, you can even have a high-end Jell-O shot, like this one my colleague Jason wrote about in his Washington Post column.

Don’t worry, though — I’m not completely sold on gelatin salads. Oh, no. The other dish I made is a cautionary tale. It was called, simply, “Chicken Salad.” I chose it because, in 1910’s Two Hundred Recipes for Making Salads, it was described as “an American delicacy.” What I ended up with was a jiggling, mayo-fueled opaque rectangle of terror that looks like I suspended random foodstuffs in a bodily fluid I shouldn’t mention in a food column (warning: there is a photo). I managed to eat exactly one and a half bites. The first bite was mostly chicken. I like chicken. The second bite was pure mayonnaise-and-chicken-broth jelly, and it made me envy everyone I know who is dead and no longer has the ability to taste. I’m pretty sure the only appropriate time to make this hideous affront to the word “salad” is if it’s 50-100 years in the future, and you’re a bunch of teenagers having a weekend away at a cabin the woods, find a copy of this column in a dusty basement, and decide to make the salad as a joke only to realize what horror you have inflicted upon yourselves.

In conclusion: Don’t let a general disdain for gelatin salads keep you from trying old gelatin recipes. But avoid anything with mayo. Because if that really is “an American delicacy,” there is no hope for us at all.

Rose Jelly With Calvados Whipped Cream

A gelatin salad doesn’t have to be savory. Thank goodness – the stuff really is better sweet. Although you’ll notice I didn’t include them in the batch photographed this recipe is lovely with blueberries in it, especially if you’re looking for a dish that looks red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July, but with some surprising flavors.

For the “good brandy” called for in the recipe, I used Calvados, which I also used to lightly flavor the whipped cream I put on top.

A measurement note – a “gill” is equal to half a cup; I put in a quarter cup each of the lemon and orange juice, because I didn’t want them to overpower the rose flavor. And you can ignore the testing part – simply put it in the fridge until it sets.

Place a pan on the fire containing one pint of clear syrup at twenty eight degrees; at the first boil mix in with it two handfuls of fresh, highly perfumed rose leaves, and remove from the fire to let infuse a quarter of an hour while covered Strain the liquid through a fine sieve and mix in with it a sufiicient quantity of gelatine or clarified isinglass, adding also two gills of filtered orange and lemon juice, and four or five spoonfuls of good brandy Taste the jelly, test its consistency on ice, in a small mold, and when perfect pour it into a jelly mold and let harden for one hour on ice, then unmold on a cold dish.

Recipe from The Epicurian, 1920

Avocado and Aspic Salad

I was ready to hate this recipe – it looks like the worst of those garishly colored 1950s cookbooks. But in reality, the cool tomato aspic plays nicely off of the fatty avocado. If you’re ever doing a retro party and want a dish that packs all of the terrible looks of bygone food without the hideous taste, I highly recommend this. Consider putting a sliced green olive in the center.

I halved the tomato jelly recipe, and it still created way too much. Consider serving the extra along with a crab salad.

Tomato Jelly

Mash fresh tomatoes through a sieve, enough to make a pint and half. Dissolve one package of gelatine, add to tomatoes, season with cloves, salt, celery seed, a bit of onion juice and white pepper. Boil a few seconds, remove from fire, strain, and when cold set near ice. Serve in square blocks on lettuce with mayonnaise.

Avocado and Aspic Salad

Split a small but matured avocado in half remove seed and hull and fill with a clear Tomato Jelly just before it congeals and put on ice When firm and ice cold around the ends of each half fit a curled white iceberg lettuce leaf Serve with Nut Dressing

Nut Dressing

Pound into a smooth paste pecan meats and mix with French dressing, or mix peanut butter with French dressing. Nice to serve over plain lettuce.

Recipe from Florida Salads: A Collection of Dainty, Wholesome Salad Recipes That Will Appeal to the Most Fastidious, 1918

Chicken Salad

As one friend said when I posted a picture of this on Facebook, “Kill it with fire.”

This is justly claimed as an American delicacy. Take two parts mayonnaise to three parts liquid aspic jelly, beat together. Decorate and line individual ramekins with the beaten mixture, fill up with slices of chicken dressed with Remoulade sauce, a few capers, and sliced olives. Cover with some of the beaten mixture. Let it stand awhile and turn out on a bed of shredded lettuce. Garnish with chopped gherkins.

Recipe from Two Hundred Recipes for Making Salads: With Thirty Recipes for Dressings and Sauces, 1910

Recipe photos by Meg Favreau. Supplemental photos by Amy B. via Flickr (Creative Commons) and Jaime via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Smart Set, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She's currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.


  1. I would really like to try the tomato aspic, but whenever I think about savory Jell-O I unfortunately can’t get this short story by Don Delillo out of my head. (Link goes to a summary, but you might be able to view a scan of the whole story at the bottom of the page.)

  2. Andrea says:

    Tomato aspic is easy to make and really nice as a cold side dish at BBQs. I really love it with grilled spicy fish or burgers. My Canadian family serves it up with bison quite a bit, too; it’s not smooth like the one you have here in the avocado, but chunky with chopped veggies. I make mine a little saltier and I like to add roasted garlic and Indian spices to it, as well – garam masala and cumin, especially. And a few healthy dashes (like 20 dashes) of Valentina sauce.

    Calf’s foot jelly is also nice as long as it is spiced correctly (nutmeg and cloves or rosemary and sage), and served with cold chicken and a heap of picnic salads. It’s a very wealthy-Englishman-in-the-country kind of dish, and it helps to eat it that way (preferably served on a table set with proper linens, fine china, and real silverware in a garden, dished up by a uniformed butler; that’s how I do it in my head).

    I can TOTALLY understand the aversion to some of the weirder versions of gelatin (like the lime jello salad with green olives that was an Internet meme a while back). I really adore the artistry of it, though, especially the intricate molds that I can’t seem to get my hands on). Perhaps because my grandmother was Russian and never made anything like it, I find it exciting and unusual.

    Except the chicken and mayo one – that needs to die.

  3. Marya says:

    Hi, i found your site through boing boing.
    I have made smoked rainbow trout in a thin film of tomato jelly that was really exceptional.
    To get the tomato jelly I strained the tomato liquid through a coffee filter so it was crystal clear.

  4. I too came over from boing boing.

    My grandmother’s Perfection Salad was just that on hot summer nights. She didn’t use Jell-o, but gelatin and for the liquid, a mixture of Gewürtztraminer*, a mild white herbed vinegar, and water; the solids were finely diced pimentos, green onions, celery, and green bell peppers, each in their own layer. NO shredded cabbage — that would be an abomination, as would olives. Make it in a loaf pan and serve in slices, on lettuce.

    *if you don’t want the alcohol, boil briefly.

    I’ve made it often, especially for potlucks.

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