Jell-O molds and ‘salads’ hold a strange, special place at the holiday table

Data pix.

Mike Lowe's grandma served all the classics for Thanksgiving: turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie; but there was always this jiggly green dish called "sea foam salad" that seemed otherworldly (even if it was delicious). So this Thanksgiving, we can't help but ask: What is that green stuff?

It turns out "Sea Foam Salad" is just one of a wide range of Jell-O molds and "salads" that combine sweet and savory, using gelatin or pudding to bind together everything from pears and pineapples to cottage cheese and sour cream.

Part of the reason these salads are so popular is because they only take a few ingredients to make. In an article, Marnie Shure of The Takeout shared a recipe from the Brother Rice Community Cookbook that's simply titled "Green Stuff." It's likely inspired by what's more widely known as Watergate Salad.

Recipe for "Green Stuff" from the Brother Rice Cookbook. (Courtesy: Marnie Shure)

Shure said her family had "Green Stuff" on the Thanksgiving table every year. While it may look strange, she said kids who tried it would later request it as adults.

"My mom hosts Thanksgiving every year for her side of the family; 25 to 40 people. It's a big crowd — and this feeds a crowd," Shure said.

Like most of these dishes, exactly who invented the Watergate Salad is unclear. There's a rumor that a food editor for the Chicago Tribune gave it the name as the recipe gained popularity in the 1970s, but today even Kraft acknowledges its true origins are murky. But today you can find it on the side of their pistachio pudding box.

Using gelatin for special meals is also nothing new. A food historian and author of a book on heirloom recipes, Catherine Lambrecht said dishes using aspic actually date back centuries. King Henry VIII apparently had a party where he made his cooks build replicas of his castles out of the stuff.

But aspics are less common today, as tastes have changed. A menu from a Thanksgiving feast held at the Everett House in Chicago in 1870, before the Great Fire in 1871, includes several types of squirrels along with game like antelope, elk and wild duck.

Courtesy Newberry Library

Lambrecht said gelatin dishes were rare in the 1800s and through the early 1900s, until a proliferation of ice boxes and refrigerators made it easier for the average person to keep things cold.

But why are they so popular?

"They're delicious. They're feminine. They're gorgeous," Lambrecht said. "That look: brown turkey and white mashed potatoes, and now you have the glowing red or glowing green salad."

Cookbooks often had entire sections dedicated to Jell-O dishes, Shure said.

"Whether they were making jell-O entrees or Jell-O desserts... it was really a way for homemakers to show their creativity while feeding their families," Shure said.

Making Watergate Salad  isn't too complicated: you basically just take the ingredients and mix them all together, then let it chill in the fridge for at least an hour. Eating it is easy too: it serves as both a side dish and a dessert.

Watergate Salad

"I know that in our family, it starts on the buffet for dinner time and then sort of migrates over to the dessert table by the end of the day," Shure said.

As to why these dishes find their way to the table during the holidays, traditions often have as much to do with the people they're connected with as the food itself, Lambrecht said.

"It's something like you would associate with your grandma. You put that on the table tomorrow and everybody will start talking about Grandma," she said. "Serving it is an act of remembrance. We may pass on, but they can serve these dishes and keep our memory alive."

Classic "salad" recipes, courtesy of Cathy Lambrecht

Lily Salad (aka "ambrosia" or "24-hour salad")

Imperial Jello

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