Jell-O salads: Like an ugly sweater, these 2 recipes deserve a place at your holiday party

Southern Kitchen
Emerald Salad

Congealed salads are not sexy. Molded and colorful, and full of canned and packaged ingredients, these not-really-a-salad salads are decidedly retro, and not in a sleek, West Elm midcentury modern kind of way. We think they're fun.

In the '50s, when Jell-O was peaking in popularity, congealed salads — also known as jellied salads, molded salads and aspic, were the thing in entertaining. Towering, quivering and studded with fruits, vegetables and meat, they were a technicolor beacon of American engineering.

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Even in the golden age of gelatin dishes, they were a retro affair. One of the most popular cookbooks in pre-Revolutionary America was Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Main Plain and Easy, which featured multiple recipes for “jelly” made from stewed calves’ feet. It's the first known mention of elaborate gelatin-based dishes. Time-consuming and requiring access to ice, they were the provenance of the wealthy who enslaved or employed people to cook for them.

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Gelatin dishes continued to increase in popularity throughout the Victorian era, especially after the invention of powdered gelatin in 1845 and flavored Jell-O in 1897.

But it wasn’t until household refrigerators became commonplace that Jell-O, and congealed salads, really began to take off, even reaching poorer, rural southerners.

Writing in the Southern Foodways Alliance publication “Gravy,” Lora Smith said the post-war use of Jell-O marked a shift in home cooking. Jell-O emerged as the first commercially processed food embraced by rural Appalachian women.

"Refrigeration changed everything about household and farm labor," she wrote. "Among those advances, Jell-O was special. Many of the women mentioned a ‘fancy Jell-O salad,’ reserved for holidays like Christmas, as a modern dish that became a family tradition.”

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Jell-O salads became so popular, the company began to manufacture savory flavors including celery, “Italian,” mixed vegetable and tomato. In the 1950 edition of Charleston Receipts, more than half of the salad recipes called for some kind of gelatin product. However, despite the relative ease of Jell-O, these salads began to wane in popularity by the late '60s as more and more women joined and stayed in the workforce. Elaborate Jell-O salads became special occasions and holiday dishes, much as they still are today.

One such enduring recipe is the "Emerald Salad," which Southern Kitchen has updated with sweetened condensed milk for a creamier texture and fresh citrus juice for needed acidity. An extra packet of unflavored gelatin ensures that the whole, fat-filled mess sets up with ease. And a final sprinkle of citrus zest gives the whole thing a bit more pizzazz.

It may not be trendy, but this congealed salad certainly deserves a place at your holiday table.

Get the recipe: A strawberry-pretzel 'salad' likely hails from the 1960s-era Joys of Jell-O Cookbook

Emerald Salad

Serves: 12

Hands-on time: 25 minutes

Total time: 1 hour and 45 minutes

Ingredients

2 (3-ounce) packages lime-flavored Jell-O

1 (0.25-ounce) package unflavored gelatin

1 (20-ounce) can crushed pineapple in juice

Juice of 2 small lemons, plus the zest of 1 lemon

Juice of 2 limes, plus the zest of 1 lime

Water, as needed

1 cup cottage cheese

1 cup sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Instructions

Lightly spray a 9- by 13-inch baking dish or other mold with nonstick oil spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the Jell-O and the unflavored gelatin.

Strain the crushed pineapple through a fine-mesh strainer set over a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. Measure out 1 cup of the pineapple and reserve. (Save the remaining pineapple for another use.) Add the lemon and lime juice to the measuring cup with the pineapple juice. Add enough water to bring the liquid level to 2 cups. Transfer to a small saucepan.

Bring the juice mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Pour the boiling mixture into the bowl with the Jell-O and whisk to dissolve. Let sit until lukewarm, 15 to 20 minutes.

Stir in the cottage cheese, condensed milk, mayonnaise and reserved pineapple into the cooled Jell-O mixture until the milk and mayonnaise are thoroughly incorporated. Transfer to the prepared baking dish. Refrigerate until fully set, at least 1 hour.

When ready to serve, sprinkle both zests across the top of the salad. Slice the salad into squares and serve. (Alternatively, before zesting, dip the bottom of the baking dish into a pan of hot water to loosen. Flip the salad out onto a large serving platter and sprinkle with zest.)

Another retro Jell-O salad

This festive 'salad' incorporates pretzels, Cool Whip and Jell-O.

With its many different variations, the strawberry pretzel salad seems to be amongst the most popular of the Jell-O corporations' decades worth of recipes. This one is believed to have originated in the 1960s when the Joys of Jell-O cookbook was published.