The Rich History Of Jell-O Salad

Although Jell-O salad may seem to be an antiquated dish of the 1950s, in some ways, it remains with us. You can find the makings of a Jell-O salad at many buffet-style restaurants. Cubes of gelatin are sometimes placed next to creamy potato salad and an array of salad vinaigrettes. HuffPost states that in the 1950s and 1960s, Jell-O salads were frequently savory. Today, some still dare to serve the sweet variant, adorned with syrupy fruits and mounds of Cool Whip.

Why was Jell-O salad so popular back in the day? One could point to the French culinary staple, aspic, which is what Jell-O aspired to be. Aspic is a solidified meat broth that French cooks used to make savory jellies. According to The Travel, these fanciful, chilled dishes would contain suspended pieces of fish, meats, and hard-boiled eggs. At the time, the finishing dish seemed stunning. The meats looked as if they were being displayed in glass. But Jell-O salad has its own complex history in the United States. With the advent of instant gelatin in the mid-1800s, Jell-O dishes became the equivalent of an easy chilled casserole, per the HuffPost.

Perfection Salad and domesticity

The first popular Jell-O salad was Perfection Salad, invented in 1904 by Mrs. John E. Cook of Pennsylvania (via Recipe Curio). While Mrs. Cook's recipe came in third in a contest, her recipe remained a mainstay in American households for decades. Perfection Salad is as close to a salad as a Jell-O-based dish can get: Shredded cabbage, bell peppers, celery, pimiento, and olives are mixed into vinegar and lime gelatin. Then, the solidified Jell-O is cubed and served with a mayonnaise dressing, giving it a creamy contrast. 

This unique recipe became a popular dish due to its and a couple of socio-historical factors. After World War II, American women were both housewives and employees (via New-York Historical Society). The answer to their busy lifestyles was easy-prep goods like instant coffee, Spam, and instant gelatin. However, Serious Eats notes that the trend of preparing cheap and quick meals was frowned upon as lazy and even unloving. To combat this sentiment, women put time and effort into dressing up these so-called "lazy" dishes. Cookbooks contained dozens of complex recipes that utilized instant ingredients — one being instant Jell-O. Thus began the heyday of Jell-O salad: A difficult dish that utilized a convenient product. Jell-O salads aren't as trendy as they used to be, but we can see odes to this dish in today's fruit salads and Jell-O treats.