Oh, the joys of Jell-O!
I am currently working on a four part blog series about what Americans were eating in the Atomic Age and why they ate what they ate. Consider this the prequel, or inspiration, to this series.
I’ve always been very interested in this topic. As a child of the 1970’s, there were still remnants of this culture in my childhood.
The research has been absolutely fascinating and I am finding it hard to stick to the main theme; there are so many subtopics in this discussion. Did the Atomic Age really liberate women from the kitchen? Did the modern conveniences of the time become an opiate for American women to soften the blow of being told to get back into the kitchen after working men’s jobs out of the the home during wartime? The economic effects created the modern consumer, created the teenager, and created American greed worse than this country had seen before, some would say.
Another question I want to explore is if the Atomic Age ended the ingenuity of the “Greatest Generation.” One of the things that I love about that generation is the ingenuity, and I think it is the main reason why I’m drawn to the 1930’s/40’s era. Of course that ingenuity was born from hardship and necessity; but still, I think today’s generation doesn’t deal with such hardship in the same way. The 1950’s were so much about convenience and letting the machines and appliances do the work, that’s when I feel Americans lost much of their spirit for ingenuity.
In doing all of this research, I have combed the antique and thrift stores in search of paperback cookbooks that consumer companies were offering to American housewives. Companies like Procter & Gamble produced these cookbooks for a multitude of their products from the “Home Economics Department” at P&G.
In 1951, Winifred S. Carter, a notable American celebrity Chef and cookbook author, was in charge of these cookbooks for P&G. Women like Winifred were hired by companies to advertise to and guide American housewives on how to use these new food products and appliances.
General Foods had its own Kitchen Cookbooks, each based on the use of a certain food product. I have one of these books that is focused on the many uses of Jell-O. The index tells you that Jell-O can be used not just for desserts, but for salads, as well. Printed in 1962, this book tells American Housewives that not only is Jell-O a trusted product for over 60 years, but it is also gives them thanks for many of the imaginative recipes found there. This book has 86 pages of recipes, all devoted to Jell-O. That is a lot of congealed food. My, oh, my!
Jell-O is described in this book as being wholesome and exciting. Wholesome? Really? Hmm.
Jell-O going mainstream is attributed to modern refrigeration in the 1950’s, its powdered form, and Home Economics classes. Jell-O was also popular in the 1930’s and 40’s; it was considered en vogue to serve congealed salads.
But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that really saw the Jell-O boom, and that’s when the company responded with such savory and vegetablicious flavors such as celery, Italian, mixed vegetable, and tomato. Super delicious! I’m kidding.
One of my favorite recipes in this book is the Tuna Salad mold. Now, I remember eating a lot of Jell-O as a kid. At my grandparents house, there were always little glass dessert cups neatly placed in rows on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator: one with Jell-O, one with chocolate pudding, and one with Jell-O with grapes inside. But tuna? Oh my gosh, no! I would have run screaming from the kitchen. I think by the mid 1970’s, thank goodness, Jell-O had been relegated to just desserts.
Here is the recipe from 1962, sure to wow your guests and family!
(Describe as: “Tuna At Its Best,” a well-seasoned salad that stays fresh until served)
1 package of Jell-O Salad Gelatin – Celery flavor
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup cold water
1 tbs lemon juice
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp grated onion
1 cup chopped cucumber
1 can tuna
1/4 cup sliced, stuffed olives
1/4 cup diced celery
The reader is instructed to prepare all ingredients and throw into a mold, then chill until firm. Oh, and be sure to plop your tuna amazingness on a crisp bed of greens. I highly doubt many young Americans today would find this an appetizing dish. And there are more amazing options in this book, such as: Salmon Mousse, Chicken Mousse, and a Soufflé salad, all with Jell-O! Yuck!
Another gem recipe is Jell-O BBQ cubes to go on top of a shrimp salad. Oh yes, you can congeal any sauce or condiment! And that got me thinking; we are not actually that different today. With the rise of Molecular Gastronomy, it seems that we still have a fascination with our food being encased in some sort of edible package.
So are we really eating that differently than the Baby Boomers? I would say yes, in part, we are, or at least we are striving to get back to eating whole, fresh and local foods. Less preservatives, less manufactured. But… I do think we are still striving for the same thing: convenience, newness, and the next best thing.
What will future generations be saying about what we eat today? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. I’m not here to judge or poke fun; really, I’m not. Well, maybe I am about the poking fun part. The point is that I am interested in how and why food got to our table, and I think the Atomic Age is a particularly fascinating period in American History and in the history of what we eat.
So back to my Jell-O, my Crisco, Pimento Loaves, and Spam!