Today’s taste for Jell-O tends to be limited to lunchbox dessert cups and vodka-infused party shots. Certainly, we would never consider it to be the delivery vehicle for a savory side dish or worse – the entire meal. Yet, this advertisement in December 1954 issue of McCall’s lifestyle magazine begs the question: what better way to enjoy radishes, green pepper and celery than jiggling within a dome of lemon and vinegar flavored gelatin?
In our day, the Jell-O mold has gone much out of vogue, though much like cranberry sauce, it seems to persist as a staple of the holiday dinner table. But in the early 20th century, “America’s Most Famous Dessert” was becoming not just a tea time delight, but a trendy side dish as well – both as an expression of culinary creativity for the clever housewife, but also a way to trick kids into eating their vegetables.
With the popularity of women’s magazines, new and more inventive combinations graced the dinner tables of homes all across America. Since their founding in 1902, Jell-O has even released some oddball savory gelatin flavors to compliment the dishes, including mixed vegetable, coffee, and seasoned tomato.
The original Jell-O Salad recipe, boldly named “Perfection Salad“, came out of a 1904 recipe contest judged by Fannie Farmer herself. Mrs. John E. Cook of New Castle, PA, took home the third prize (a $100 sewing machine) for her creative concoction: gelatin salad featuring cabbage, olives, celery, green pepper, and, wait for it… mayonnaise. The recipe was later revived in a 1963 article from Better Homes & Gardens.
People were also not above making congealed meals for the main course too. Some recipes called for pasta, eggs or meats mixed into clear Jell-O, with anything ranging from whole chickens to pig’s feet and tongue. See more examples here.
In case you haven’t lost your appetite yet, might I remind you that gelatin, no matter how fun it looks, is a protein obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones with water. It’s usually made from cows and pigs.
Still, Jello managed to reign alongside apple pie as an All American dessert for over 100 years. In the 1920s, it was even served to immigrants at Ellis Island as a way to welcome them to their new and better way of life. (Oh, the wonders!)
So while we may no longer prefer our vegetables in suspended animation, Jell-O is no doubt still here and sticking (or dare I say, jiggling) around.
To learn more about the history of Jell-O than you ever thought you wanted to know, check out Carolyn Wyman’s book Jell-O: A Biography or visit Wikipedia.