When I saw a Facebook photo of a friend’s favourite comfort food, I was both entranced and shocked. It was red Jell-O with fruit cocktail inside — the infamous jellied salad. I did not realize that these were still being eaten today by actual people outside of church suppers.
If you have ever been to a church or community supper, you must have had a jellied salad. They consist of Jell-O, preferably fire-engine red or neon green, and some combination of fruit and vegetables, such as shredded carrots and tinned mandarin oranges.
I have a mixed relationship with these concoctions, and I learned I was not the only one. My sister, Alison, responds to our mother’s tomato aspic jellied salad with “the horror, the horror.” But not only have “the Jellies” never left us, they are being reinvented as an on-trend consumable.
Listen to the author on CBC Metro Morning talking about jellied salads
For a long time, jellied foods were the domain of the rich. Gelatin was made by a laborious process involving boiling cattle hooves for hours, which required both time and servants. Fast forward to 1845, when a powdered gelatin was created. Then, in 1897, Jell-O itself was patented and became affordable for everyone.
Sandra Kell Cullen, a lover of history and a docent at the Parkwood Estate in Oshawa, Ont., explains the next phase in the salad’s evolution.
“In 1904,” she says, “a Mrs. Cook from Pennsylvania won third prize in a contest with her ‘Perfection Salad.’ This seems to be the start of jellied salads with fruit or veg in them. I found a recipe for Perfection Salad in the 1923 Canadian Cookbook. There were a couple of other jelly salads listed such as Fruit and Ginger Ale and Tomato Jelly. Twenty years later, the Canadian Cookbook was revised and this time there is seven pages of jellied salads!”
Seven pages! A cornucopia of jellies! But wait, there’s more:
“With the colourful Jell-O brand becoming popular in the early 1960s, we see the food trend of jellied salads taking off and ingredients like fruit, vegetable, cottage cheese, nuts and pretzels were included.”
But what about today? Will millennials and Generation Z go for green or red jellied salads with potato chips? For this, I reached out to chef Kristen Atwood, a millennial and lifelong member of the United Church.
“Jellied desserts are having a resurgence in recent years.” she told me. “[There are] layered jelly petit fours, jelly-based cakes and small bites with beautiful pieces of fruit and flowers inside. There is a plant-based gelling agent called agar-agar that derives from seaweed that a lot of people are using. Trying to replace gelatin with agar is great for chefs like me as it allows people with dietary restrictions or people who chose not to eat gelatin for religious reasons to enjoy the dessert.”
There you have it. I’m heading to the kitchen to make a jellied salad and a dessert. Just not tomato aspic… sorry, Mom.
From The Hospitality Cookbook: Favorite Recipes from Ministers’ Wives by Elizabeth Bonnell McCuaig (1960)
1 pkg. lime gelatin
1 #1 flat (9-0z.) can crushed pineapple
1/4 c. chopped celery (inside, tender stalks)
2 t. finely chopped orange peel
1 medium tart apple, chopped
Make up gelatin in the usual way, using some of the pineapple and orange juice as liquid, if desired, though this is not necessary. Add the pineapple, celery and orange peel; also apple, chopped, after gelatin is cold. Stir several times while it is setting, so chopped ingredients will not settle firm on top. Use molds or shallow pans so it can be cut into squares.
Serve with a topping of mayonnaise or other dressing, and it’s “right” with almost anything.
“. . . . a favourite congealed salad that my family pronounces ‘fit for a king.'”
Rev. Christopher White is a minister at Kedron United in Oshawa, Ont.
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