Prejudice and Jello Salad.
Thanksgiving break and my daughter Kathryn is preparing to leave the U of A and come home to the Upper Midwest for the holiday. “I’m looking forward to my mother’s Jello salad,” she tells her western friends. “What’s Jello salad?” they query.
Back in Illinois, she relates the above. Kathryn explains that her friends know what Jello is, it is the salad part that is confusing. I guess that makes sense as Jello salads are still only popular a few places: the Midwest, the South, and Utah. In other regions of the country, Jello salad is mostly forgotten.
To gain a better understanding of contemporary feelings around Jello salad, I turned to YouTube’s query function. Up popped a number of videos, most of them created by millennials. In one video a couple makes a simple Jello salad and then warm the mold too much when they try to release the Jello. Out comes a slimy mess. They make disparaging comments on how gross and disgusting Jello salad is. Another channel makes a classic lime Jello salad that has mayonnaise as one of its ingredients. “I can’t get past the mayonnaise,” the host says as she twists her face. Still another channel has two hosts sitting at a desk, news anchor style. They don’t bother to make anything; they just show Jello salad recipes scanned from magazines from the 1950s. Laughs, gagging noise, and other disgusting sounds erupt from them in forced humor. The implication being that these are some of the most disgusting foods that they have ever seen. I am saddened.
If you are over 50, you probably have some recollection what a Jello salad is. Let me give the rest of you a brief history of Jello. Jello is a brand name for gelatin, an animal product that is derived from processing collagen that is abundantly found in connective tissue. There are records from the 1500s where the wealthy ate gelled foods served up in fancy molds. In the middle 1800s techniques were developed to create a gelatin powder, and shortly after that Pearle and May Waits combined the powder with flavorings and sugar to create Jello. At the turn of the 20th century, Jello’s popularity skyrocketed with clever advertising that also features recipes that combined Jello with other food ingredients.
In some ways, Jello was one of the original fusion foods, as it allowed homemakers creative license to combine Jello with all sorts of things, both savory and sweet. The mixture could then be poured into a mold, and the resulting dish would be not only tasty but also beautiful. Countless Jello recipes combine Jello (often lime flavored) with vegetables. These are one form of “Jello salad.” However, it is easy to broaden the definition of salad. There are recipes for tuna and chicken Jello salads, and a multitude of recipes for sweet salads that combine fruit and a wide variety of ingredients like marshmallows, cream cheese, or whipped topping (Cool Whip). In the spirit of a tossed salad, many recipes have a little mayonnaise in them. Although it may sound disgusting, mayonnaise adds a creamy goodness that tones down the sweetness of the Jello in a good way.
Jello was often served in my 1960s home. Sometimes plain as a snack, or with fruit cocktail suspended in it. My mother would make Jello salads for special occasions, always of the sweet variety. Typically, they would be poured into her prized Tupperware mold that had a quick release top for easy salad removal. Although my mother made a variety of Jello salads, she is most remembered for a classic Lime Jello that blended cream cheese, cottage cheese, and pineapple into a green delight. This signature salad is now brought to family gatherings by my niece “Kat,” and it has become her signature Jello salad. My wife fondly recalls her mother’s “Under-the-Sea” Jello Salad (Lime Jello, pears, cream cheese and a touch of cinnamon). My sister-in-law is famous for her Eggnog Jello, and my wife’s signature Jello salad is a layered concoction that has a graham cracker crust, a cream cheese/Cool Whip layer, a Cranberry Jello/mandarin orange layer and a top Cool Whip only layer. Julie’s salad is made in a 9 x 13 pan, and it is cut into squares for serving.
Many of the above concoctions may sound dessert-like, and indeed there are many desserts that use Jello. Pies, parfaits, and poke cakes are just some that come to mind. So what is the difference between a Jello salad and a Jello dessert? Often, not much. A salad is served with the meal; a dessert is served afterward. If it was molded, it was a salad. If it looked like a dessert, it was a dessert. I know that this is a weak convention, but that is the way it is.
A homemade Midwestern celebration (not catered) will likely have Jello salads. This is not the case for a fancy dinner. Despite millennials disgusting grunts, many Jello salads are lovely. Like a good pot roast, they don’t claim to be haute cuisine. But like a pot roast, they can be delicious and satisfying.
When I was researching contemporary views on Jello salad I was struck with the bias that so many younger people had against it. That bias was formed by lack of experience, lack of understanding, and preconceived notions. People were willing to write off Jello salads because they didn’t conform to something that was familiar to them. YouTubers who sell their channels by trying to be sophisticated and hip were happy to discount something that was outside of their comfort zone. Strong negative judgments were formed with little and in some cases no objective evidence. They hated Jello salads because of their ignorance. The salads were different, and different was terrible.
Our views on Jello salads are not that different from our views of people. Often if we are familiar with them, we are willing to accept and even embrace them, flaws and all. However, if they are different from what we are used to it is easy to come up with biases and conclusions about them that can be negative and demeaning.
Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion; it is so easy to judge the label and not the person. May I suggest that you make a nice Jello salad today and serve it up with an open mind. You may find that you think differently about it. Perhaps you could also experience a person who is different from you; you may find them sweet and delightful.