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Jell-O Salad: The Rise and Fall of an American Icon

There was a time when women’s magazines were filled with Jell-O recipes, enough that you could serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, all containing Jell-O. It seems strange now, but the history of the food can shed some light on the craze. Making gelatin was once a labor-intensive project, and was served to flaunt how many servants one had. Then at the turn of the 20th century, the Industrial Revolution gave us two trends that collided successfully: processed foods and the rise of the middle class. Housewives were eager to show off their domestic skills. Lynne Belluscio of the Jell-O Gallery Museum and food historian Laura Shapiro explain how Jell-O made that a breeze.

Instant gelatin fit the bill. It was fast, unlike the traditional method of making gelatin. It was economical: a housewife could stretch her family's leftovers by encasing them in gelatin. And, since sugar was already included in the flavored mixes, the new packaged gelatins didn't require cooks to use up their household stores of sugar. It was also neat and tidy, a quality much valued by the domestic-science movement as well as its Victorian forebears, who were mad for molded foods of all kinds, says Belluscio. Jellied salads, unlike tossed ones, were mess-free, never transgressing the border of the plate: "A salad at last in control of itself," Shapiro writes. Cooks in this era molded everything from cooked spinach to chicken salad, with care to avoid the cardinal sin of messiness.

But that was just the beginning. Wartime food rationing, the Great Depression, and the culture of postwar suburbia all fed the Jell-O salad craze. Sometime in the late 20th century, chefs figured out that no one was eating their savory Jell-o salads with vegetables, fish, and mayonnaise in them. In the 21st century, those recipes are mainly a source of comedy. Read the history of the Jell-O salad at Serious Eats. -via the Presurfer

(Image credit: the Kraft Heinz Company)


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