Jell-o and the Patronizing Children

A couple of days ago I was on my Medium site doing something and I happened on a blog that interviewed Ruth Clark, a Millennial, who writes about “Mid-Century Cuisine.” This young woman had a great idea which was to take old cookbooks, cook from them and write a blog about the food. These days people have an interest in food that I don’t understand at all, but there it is. You can learn more about her here.

She posited theories about “Mid-century Cuisine” that big businesses were trying to create need (clearly a fan of Mad Men). It seems not to have occurred to her that for the first time in more than twenty years people had food with which to experiment and the US, in the fifties, was, for the first time, NOT a primarily agrarian nation but had become an industrial giant because of the war. She also misses the point that the kind of cooking experimentation SHE’S involved in Mid-Century People were involved in, too.

She also doesn’t consider (or realize? or ask?) that among the numerous recipes she has between the covers of all her grandmother’s cookbooks are only a FEW that actually made it into the daily diet of “Mid-Century People.” I got bitched off at this Child and posted responses in a bitched off tone of voice, comments I’ve since deleted, such as, “Why don’t you wait until the Mid-Century people are all dead before you make these sweeping and inaccurate generalizations?”

I believe I also commented that since we’re still around, she could interview us rather than come up with absurd theories… (I’d love to be able to interview medieval people for my own projects, but the dead tell no tales.) This Child has a great opportunity to ask questions such as, “Did you ever prepare liver Jell-o?” But apparently her interest in her project (and her market) is in showing how disgusting Mid-Century food is, and that is what she is setting out to prove — so we have chicken ice cream.

She has written about what she described as an obsession with gelatin. She made many gelatin recipes and expressed surprise that any of these Jell-o concoctions tasted good. Uh, as far as I know, people have always liked tasty food.

She described a Jell-o concoction that was common in my life because my Aunt Martha made it often. Clark describes it as “coleslaw” and says it was named “Perfection Salad.” It was lime or lemon jello with pineapple, cabbage and carrots. Why did my Aunt Martha make this all the time? Well as this child pointed out, things stay fresh when they’re “encased” in Jell-o.

“Clark: I haven’t really heard a lot of food historians talk about this, but I’ve found that food mixed into Jell-O stays fresher much longer than if you have it by itself.

Collectors Weekly: Whoa, how long are you talking about, like weeks?

Clark: Like days. For example, Perfection Salad is basically coleslaw inside of lemon or lime Jell-O, so it’s got cabbage and carrots and all kinds of stuff. But the cabbage will stay fresh for over a week. If you take a bite of it, it’s still crunchy… We’ve done a lot of different Jell-O stuff and noticed that freshness is basically extended when you encase things in Jell-O.”


The Child actually expressed surprise and wonderment at this? (No Child Left Behind, what monsters you’ve made!) Isn’t it obvious that Jell-o keeps the veggies moist because, 1) Jell-o is mostly water, and 2) it keeps dry refrigerator air away from the cabbage?

My Aunt Martha (born in 1919, grew up in Montana during the Great Depression, worked for the OSS during WW II) worked for the government. She worked 8 hour days with a 1 hour drive RT. She got home late, lived alone and Jell-o meant she only had to make ONE salad for the week. My Aunt Martha was brilliant, beautiful, funny and an extremely successful public servant who was awarded a medal by Congress even though she, unlike the Child, never attended college. This is because Mid-Century adults were well-educated in high school. My Aunt Martha KNEW why Jell-o kept the cabbage fresh.

The Child also wrote about the “elaborate molded desserts” and how Mid-Century Women “competed” to make the fanciest. At this point, I wanted to slap her. My Aunt Martha’s contribution to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner was Jell-o. She could make it ahead. Even a person of leisure (is the Child such a person?) can have a busy life and many Mid-Century Workers worked a full day the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. My Aunt Martha started her Great Jell-o Project Tuesday evening, did the next step Wednesday after she got home from work, and finished it at our house on Thanksgiving morning. She was mocked for the persistence of Jell-o by her married sisters, but the fact is, the fancy layered salad was good. It had a layer of raspberry Jell-o “encasing” cranberries on top, followed by lime Jell-o “encasing” pineapple and the bottom was cream cheese and walnuts.

I actually made it for Thanksgiving last year and while the reaction of people at the table was, “Oh my I haven’t seen Jell-o in years,” once they tried it they wanted more. It never occurs to the Child that people might have liked Jell-o because it is a cool and refreshing change from the heavy dishes of a holiday feast. In any case, most of the Jell-o salad I made for Thanksgiving was gone before the end of the meal.

The Mid-Century Fourth of July Picnic of my Mid-Century Childhood? Here you go.

Billings, Montana. My aunts and mom come out to the back yard bringing the food, fried chicken, potato salad, a yellow Pyrex mixing bowl filled with red jello mixed with fruit cocktail. There is bread and butter, pies. In the house is an angel food cake. The edges of the table cloths flutter in the breeze. Early evening golden light slides sideways through the tall grass in the pasture. Fence post shadows stretch across the field.

I would like to tell this Child to keep going with her project but to collect some stories around the recipes and to ask us if we ever ate Chicken Jell-o. She’ll find that Mid-Century People were probably as disgusted by it as she is. If she needs proof, she only needs to look forward in cookbooks from the 60s and 70s and see what recipes survived the red pencil of time (and digestion).

P.S. Someone just wrote a very hostile comment to this post. (Get a life?) In response 1) everyone is biased; a bias that is in contradiction to your bias is no more biased than yours, 2) shut up. This is my blog. Go write your own.

10 thoughts on “Jell-o and the Patronizing Children

  1. I read this piece recently, too, just after I’d written my entry about my grandmother’s “cooking.” While the author’s take and tenor weren’t quite as off-putting to me, her lack of intellectual curiosity (in-depth primary research) was certainly irritating.

    And it’s a bit typical. Sigh. As you indicated, thanks, NCLB.

    As an X-er, I’m somewhere in the middle of the New Jell-o concoctions as preservatives and the organic, anti-processed, kale-juicing fanaticism. Many of us X-ers remember things like…well, like Jell-o “salads” and ribbon sandwich loaves at various family functions during our childhood. Some of the Jell-o concoctions among others were often left untouched — like you mentioned, it’s not like folks actually ENJOYED the oddities created at the time.

    Anyway, love your writing, as ever!

    • I think I was put off by her lack of curiosity when there are people available to TALK with about this stuff. And I was annoyed by her lack of historical context. My grandmother (born in 1884) was a splendid cook who used only fresh and natural ingredients (farm wife), did her own canning, prepared everything from scratch (kind of like the Vastly Enlightened Juicers of Today) and my mom took cooking very seriously and continued to try new recipes until the last few years before she died. That’s another thing that bugs me about this Child. The cookbooks might be static, and they may represent a certain je ne sais qua about the time, but to truly understand Mid-Century Cooking, that Child needs to look in later cookbooks and see what vanished from the recipes. The 60s saw Joy of Cooking which was as inclusive as a cookbook could be. By the time I was on my own in the early 70s cooking fads had changed and the cooking of Mid-Century People (like my mom) had changed too. If chicken jell-o had been any good, we’d still make it. She misses the whole point that the kind of experimentation she’s involved in Mid-Century People were involved in, too. Yeah. I hate her. 😉 As for you Gen-Xers? I like you. Most of my friends came out of your generation. I suppose that’s because when I was 42 I was 19. Long story.

  2. I have to admit, no jello-based food other than simple, red jello and its companion My-T-Fine chocolate pudding, ever made it to our refrigerator. But my mother was a terrible cook. Really bad. As in “No, really Mom, you go back to your easel and keep painting and I’ll find something to eat on my on. Please!” I envied the kids who got jello mold foodstuffs. And edible meals cooked by women who knew when it was time to remove the roast from the oven.

    I was unaware that there was such a thing as mid-millennial cuisine. I though we just ate food and what you ate was the result of what your folks learned to cook from their folks, or what was on sale at the butcher. No matter. These days, I’m afraid to eat fruit because it will turn me into a mutant.

    I have a lot of those cookbooks. If you ignore the weird recipes, there are some treasures to be found. Like “poor man’s rice pudding.” And “English muffins.”

    • Mid-Century Modern is a real thing and people write historical novels about our childhood. I’d like to do evil things to their persons but such is prohibited by law. Considering that films, novels, non-fiction, news reels everything exists from that time, their fiction had better be good — in fact, there’s no point writing it. I saw Children at the Historical Novel Society dressed up in 1950s and 1960s clothes, not authentic but bizarre not-quite-right faux outfits. If those Children spent ONE year in OUR high schools they’d freak out.

      • It’s television and movies. Until they start worrying about the bomb, drinking Martinis (real ones) and Manhattans, having luncheons with neighbor ladies, it’s all dress-ups, I guess like The Great Gatsby with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford though, at least, that was based on a book written by a guy who had lived in the 20s…

  3. My Aunt Stella’s whipped strawberry jello was always my favorite part of any holiday meal. My mother’s orange jello (made in a cakepan) with pineapple, walnuts, celery and a mayonnaise and whipped cream topping was also wonderful. I still love jello but never think to make it.

  4. I think I’d have to smack the Child in her patronising mouth. “Yoo-hoo sweetheart, we’re still here! And guess what, jellied eggs and liver with buttermilk? Never heard of them. And another news flash – cooking from scratch really isn’t weird and a bit pitiful. You know, fresh ingredients? Unprocessed food? Avoiding obesity? And does buttermilk plumcake come in a packet? But then anyone who throws ‘like’ around the way you do is obviously grasping for coherent thought.”

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