My grandmother's Jell-O mold is sweet and complicated, like family itself
I thought my family didn’t repeat recipes for Thanksgiving. Then this year’s menu-planning started, and I remembered Nani’s Jell-O mold. How could I have forgotten?
Nani was a gourmet cook, legendary in family lore. She never made Jell-O molds, but when my mother was about 10, which would be the early 1960s, the Molded Cranberry Claret Salad showed up on the Thanksgiving table.
Made in a small pan with zigzag sides, it was “a marvel of engineering,” my mom said. “It was so fancy.”
It tasted fancy, too. Nani’s Jell-O mold is dense, its winy sweetness balanced by the bitterness of ground cranberries, celery and walnuts, with their tannins behind the teeth. It has Thanksgiving’s most neglected texture, crunch, and its most neglected taste, bitterness.
We’ve never managed to track down the recipe's source. Nani took classes and subscribed to all the magazines. When the term “claret” went out of fashion, she wrote “Bordeaux” in parentheses on the handwritten recipe card. “I never saw anybody else use it or make it,” my mom said.
And she would know. In the '80s, my mother was a Jell-O professional. She worked for General Foods as a business home economist. She unmolded Jell-O on small-market morning television shows, under the lights, pregnant with my little sister.
Did Nani make the mold every Thanksgiving? Was she proud of it? My mom tried to remember, and gave up. “God, there’s nobody else you can even ask. It’s times like this it hits home,” she said.
My mother is the last of her nuclear family. Papa died in 1998, hale, his massive heart attack totally unexpected. Nani died in 2009, blessedly taken quickly by cancer in the midst of worsening dementia. But by early 2014 my uncle was dead at only 53, and my aunt at 66.
To unmold Jell-O, my mom taught viewers, you briefly dip the mold in hot water, put a wet plate over it and invert. The plate is wet so that you can scooch the Jell-O to the center if you’re a little off.
Which points to a technical dilemma. Nani’s Jell-O mold is served on a bed of lettuce. How did she get the lettuce under the Jell-O? If you try to do it after unmolding, things get a little messy. My mom can’t figure it out. “I had that very quandary. Because everything she did was perfect,” she said.
That is hard for me to hear.
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My memories of Nani are the foggiest of all my grandparents. I remember her activities — cooking, knitting, taking a tap-dance class — more than her personality. I remember going through a scrapbook with her and finding an anxious childhood card from my mother expressing, at length, how hard she tried to protect her brother.
Instead, I have taken on some of my mother and aunt’s memories. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Nani was the bad cop. Maybe she was perfect on the surface, but underneath she was complex, both sweet and astringent, like her Jell-O mold. She was her nicest to friends and grandchildren, and after she got dementia.
My mother has made peace, remembering that Nani grew up with divorced parents and mean siblings. Sometimes we defend our parents more than they defend themselves.
The only Thanksgiving I remember spending with Nani was a month after Papa died, when I was 21. Everyone’s emotions sputtered like the white sauce she made me stir for baby onions no one ate. But of course we all ate the Jell-O mold. There were never any leftovers when Nani made it, my mom said.
My mother has served the Jell-O salad, in her own copper-coated ring mold, at just about every Thanksgiving. She knows this because she keeps a folder with the menus. She made the menus in part because she used to fax them to Florida so my grandparents could read them and my uncle brag to his co-workers. Papa faxed Nani’s menus in return. Like all faxes, these have gone smeared and faint.
Fortunately the Jell-O salad recipe exists not in a fax but on an index card, in Nani’s handwriting. At the end, in the handwriting of a much older woman, Nani added, “Love you!”
I never thought I would care about a Jell-O salad. For a native of the Northeast, they are hardcore kitsch. The last time I made it on my own, for a New Orleans friendsgiving, it was a hard sell. We had leftovers, which bled on the lettuce.
But if I don’t carry on the tradition, who will? My sister doubts she ever will make the mold, though she faxes (texts) me her menus. My cousin’s wife handles holiday cooking. My niece is 6.
Mom inherited Nani’s spiky metal mold. I inherited hers.
“Recipes have just been a big deal,” my mom said. “She made all these delicious things, and everyone knew she was such a good cook. And I carried on,” she said. “And now you two make delicious things.”
Like Nani’s Jell-O salad.
Molded Cranberry Claret Salad
- 1 small package strawberry Jell-O
- 1¼ cups hot water
- 1½ cups red wine (Bordeaux)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 cup sugar
- Dash salt
- 2 cups raw cranberries, ground
- 1 cup minced celery
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- Vegetable oil for mold
- Salad greens for presentation
- Dissolve Jell-O in hot water — add sugar, wine, lemon juice and salt. Stir to dissolve. Cool — then chill.
- When mixture thickens fold in berries, celery and nuts.
- Pour into oiled 1 quart mold or eight individual molds and chill until firm.
- Unmold on crisp salad greens and serve with mayo (optional). (We have never served it with mayo.)
Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter and the author of the book "The Secret History of Home Economics." You can reach her at email@example.com or 919/236-3141.
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