SARAH BAIRD (this piece was first published April 4, 2012)
Therapy in the South has, historically, been more about the kitchen table than a psychologist’s couch, where head-shrinking and heart-mending go hand-in-hand with a full belly. The women of my family have for generations adhered to this practice, where the closest thing to a Rorschach test anyone ever gets is what the mess of gravy looks like leftover on the plate after dinner.
If ever a culinary Meyers Briggs existed for southern women of a certain era, the congealed salad would be the go-to personality barometer. If you show up to an Easter luncheon with a dish of pineapple-studded sunshine surprise, don’t be surprised if folks wager a guess that you’re an extrovert. Prefer your Jell-O confections to be cranberry-based? Before your piece of edible art hits the table at a bridal shower, ladies will be chatting about how deep and perceptive you seem.
Judging and eating are two of the South’s greatest past times, so it’s no surprise that for generations, congealed salads have lined tables at everything from birthday parties to funerals. In the early 1930s, gelatin salesmen began the practice of selling their wares door-to-door, where Southern homemakers would snap up this means of creating diverse, attractive dishes that kept well and made colorful showpieces. No matter how sweltering the summer became, party guests could rest assured that these cool treats would be dotting dinner tables as a refreshing alternative to heavy cakes or pies as an after dinner flourish. From the 1930s until the 1950s, no table was complete without one of these colorfully named dishes—cherry co-cola salad, lime fluff, orange dump salad or, frequently, just “pink stuff”—whether it was frozen into bar form, piled fluffy and high or molded into Bundt-shaped perfection.
While the term salad is obviously a loose construct, in my family the distinction in whether or not a congealed salad was to be a side item or dessert was its status as frozen or less-formally gelled, with anything entering the icebox automatically pushed to an end-of-meal timeslot. This left a wide swath of non-frozen congealed salads to compete against some heavy hitters, going toe-to-toe with the likes of green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese for a shot at side dish glory. With this kind of stiff competition, how does the poor congealed salad stand a chance? Since the 1960s, they’ve been systematically beaten out of the picnic table shuffle, relegated to edible antique status.
This is why I’m calling for a renaissance of the congealed salad. In home kitchens, backyards and restaurants across America, we’re embracing retro, homespun cooking like never before, with Southern traditions like spoonbread and hush puppies as likely to pop up at brunch in Brooklyn as on a table in rural Alabama. We’ve watched canning and preserving go from a grandmotherly practice to the hottest activity for skinny jeans-wearing millennials, who are lining up to learn how to make strawberry jam and pickled beets. Backyard chicken coops have popped up on rooftops, and neighbors are almost as likely to be urban beekeepers as have a house cat. While our favorite Technicolor confections definitely don’t fall under the auspices of local, health-conscious or sustainable food movements, they are in prime position to experience the next rebirth. Harboring a unique combination of relative ease and low cost, the congealed salad should be embraced with open arms by a generation already heavily invested in culinary nostalgia. So dig through recipe cards, old cookbooks or ask the keeper of your family food lore and get busy refining your very own jiggly personality showpiece.
Orange Dream Salad
This recipe is a perfect introduction to making a congealed salad, including the art of partially solidifying the Jell-O prior to introducing the additional ingredients.
– Orange Jell-O, 1 Box
– Small Can [12 oz.] Crushed Pineapple, Drained Well
– Small Can [12 oz.] Mandarin Oranges
– Large Container [16 oz.] Cool Whip
– Small Container [8 oz.] Cottage Cheese
1. Prepare Jell-O as directed.
2. Refrigerate Jell-O for approximately half the allotted time until partially congealed (slightly jiggly, no liquid, but not firm).
3. Fold in remaining ingredients and refrigerate until serving.