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November 9, 2011

It must be Jell-O Salad

Filed under: Food,Holidays — Miss Plumcake @ 5:39 pm

Unlike the esteemed and older-than-I-thought Twistie, Thanksgiving isn’t my favorite holiday.

In fact, until I checked the comments here, I had no idea it was just a few weeks away. I am, at the moment, sitting on the terraza of Villa Plumcake overlooking the Pacific, drinking pineapple juice and watching the solitary surfer in hopes case he gets attacked by a shark (what? Shark Week was months ago and now I’m bored. That doesn’t make me a bad person.) which makes it difficult to think of turkeys and casseroles and poorly-dressed yankees who couldn’t find their way to a proper place like Virginia and probably weren’t even Episcopalians to begin with.

However, this upcoming Thanksgiving will be my last one in the US for at least a few years so I am getting uncharacteristically sentimental, especially because it’s my first Thanksgiving without my grandparents who raised me, as they both died in December of last year.

That brings us to Moldy Salad.

Moldy salad made its appearance twice a year: Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was a…festive…gelatin-based creation, consisting of layers of a white Cool Whip/gelatin/cream cheese  concoction and a red-flavored Jell-O one into which canned cherries had been lovingly incorporated. My grandmother set this in an avocado green aluminum bundt mold that will probably give us all early-onset Alzheimer’s, and served it sliced on a single leaf of–you guessed it– iceberg lettuce. The overall effect was as if someone served us a bisected wedge of the Wicked Witch leg, and I’m not sure it tasted much better.

So now here’s the question:

My grandmother, whose qualities were otherwise countless (depending on how high you could count) could not cook to save her life. She didn’t like food, she didn’t like cooking and she didn’t like eating. Still, if there was a dish for which she was familially famous, it was Moldy Salad.

I am now in possession of the old bundt mold and am halfway tempted to try to recreate the recipe as a sort of homage to my grandmother for my last Thanksgiving with my relatives.

Do I try to recreate her authentic recipe? Make a more posh (as in, actually made of food recognized as such in nature or at least by the FDA) version? Skip it altogether and let its memory stay jiggly but unsullied? I don’t eat Jell-O in any shape or form (long stay in the hospital when I was but a wee bairn) but it might be nice to do for the fam.

Suggestions? Recipes? Hideous family dishes you’ve known and loved? Put it in the comments!



  1. I say leave the moldy salad where it belongs, in memory (or landfill) and only make edible things for Thanksgiving dinner. I will also share that once I gave a vintage aluminum mold AND a cookbook (OK, that’s not right, there’s no cooking involved and I hesitate to even use the word recipe, but what the heck) of Jello … um … concoctions …. to St. Larry and he was genuinely grateful and utterly unaware of any intended irony.

    Comment by Friv — November 9, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

  2. IF you choose to make it, leave the recipe as is. Right now it’s still “Grandma’s salad”. Be prepared for people to complain that it “doesn’t taste like Grandma’s”…although having it taste like Grandma’s would be a dubious honour, to be sure.

    Comment by Colleen — November 10, 2011 @ 12:45 am

  3. Since I figure your Grandmother had a wonderful cocktail or signature drink, how about doing that instead.

    Comment by Txbunny — November 10, 2011 @ 1:40 am

  4. Make grandma’s salad for old times sake!

    My family has a dish we lovingly call “Oh Ish” (ish being a Minnesotan expression meaning disgusting.) The “salad” consists of a can of fruit cocktail, a package of lemon instant pudding, two cups of milk and a carton of cool whip… stir until it looks like a big fluffy mess.

    It tastes pretty good… in a better living through chemistry sort of way.

    Comment by Julie — November 10, 2011 @ 2:00 am

  5. I’m not sure this advice is useful, but I shall give it anyway with YMMV attached: these types of dishes are much, much more work than they seem when you are eating them, and I find they are much, much riskier than other recipes–one misstep in judgment can cause the whole shmegegie to collapse into a sad, not-so-very-nice-looking-ooze, which, after you’ve spent hours futzing with it, really saddens one.

    I find I don’t like messing with fiddly things like this on Thanksgiving when there are so many other dishes to worry about. I like to make something that is yummy and easy so that I can spend my time hanging out. (I do a Thanksgiving for my foreign PhD students so they have a place to go eat turkey and watch football).

    Comment by Lisa from SoCal — November 10, 2011 @ 2:53 am

  6. We have not one but two family Jell-O salads. One is (I think) a mix of red and orange Jell-O, with apples and walnuts. I don’t remember who Chubby was, but that was Chubby’s Jell-O Salad. I don’t think anyone’s made it since my grandfather passed.

    My aunt makes the green one for our spring reunion, though. It’s of the Jell-O + cream cheese category – not layered, but mixed, so you get an opaque, slightly creamy and fluffy light green thing. It has pineapple (which is indeed tricky; enzymes in the pineapple will destroy the Jell-O if you put it in too early) and some kind of nut or crunchy bit, too. I think it’s walnut, again.

    I love ’em. And the pickled eggs and beets, and even the sweet potatoes after my uncle has gotten to them and eaten all the marshmallows off the top. Oh, and the three bean salad (one can each of green, wax and kidney beans in a sweet-and-sour vinaigrette).

    Oddly, with all this vintage American cooking, we never did the green bean casserole.

    Comment by TeleriB — November 10, 2011 @ 8:00 am

  7. Before you do anything, poll the fam. Who knows what they really thought of Moldy Salad? A lot of these Jello recipes are closer to science experiments and they are fiddly–it’s a ton of work for someone who doesn’t really love the finished dish. If everyone at home looked forward to the bisected Leg of Witch salad, then sure, go ahead; but if people just ate it to be nice and because it was the one thing your grandmother could make, make something delicious for everyone instead. This meal is significant for you and your family so you should really have as much pleasure from it as possible.

    Comment by ChaChaHeels — November 10, 2011 @ 8:39 am

  8. Those disgusting recipes are, to my way of thinking, part of a family’s heritage. My mother grew up in the South, and we have a jello recipe that includes Coke, marshmallows, Miracle Whip, and the notation “lettuce optional.”

    I don’t think much of it, but it was the favorite thing of my 89-year-old father in law and a 16-year-old nephew. Along with my mother’s “secret” gravy recipe–canned stuff that you mix with the bits at the bottom of the roasting pan after draining off the fat. Seriously, my father-in-law told me to give the recipe to my mother-in-law, said it was the best gravy he’d ever had. She–a nutritionist given to healthy cooking–glared at me.

    Don’t dump those old recipes. Mix them in with the new stuff, and be thankful for the family that gave them to you. That’s how I see it anyway.

    Comment by Talbot — November 10, 2011 @ 9:23 am

  9. Ahhh, Pal Plummy, learn from those who have gone before. Don’t even attempt it, and if you foolishly do, don’t change it.

    There will be snark, and it will be the worst kind. The *polite* kind.

    “Well, bless her heart, she tried.”

    Then you’ll be indicted for whatever damage you (rightfully) cause and what will your readers do without you?

    PS – our family Jell-o disaster is simply called “green pie” and is Jell-o and cool whip in a store-bought graham cracker crust. We feed this to the little kids while telling them that they don’t like the coconut cream pie that the adults fight over (we always have at least two.)

    PSS – don’t ever try to switch it up and make pink pie. The children won’t eat it and the wailing is annoying.

    Comment by Robyn — November 10, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  10. We have a similar one in our family, which I love. It has red (is that a flavor?!) jello with a can of chunky cranberry sauce in it and is topped with a mix of whipping cream, cream cheese, some mayonnaise, sugar and walnuts. Honestly, I love it. I’ll try to remember to dig it out of the recipe box at home.

    I will say I’ve never been able to make it so it unmolds properly. : I think the key is making the white part first, letting it cool overnight in the fridge and then putting the jello mix on it (cooled down a bit before it sets). Grandma always seemed to make come out okay without this extra step but every time I’ve made it, the jello part mixes in too much with the white part and ends up ugly (but still delicious).

    Comment by MrsBug — November 10, 2011 @ 10:16 am

  11. Poll the family and see if anyone will eat it before you make it. For my first Thanksgiving with my in-laws, from their grandma’s recipe, I made a 6 layer jello salad that took me 12 plus hours and involved a blender and shimming the pan in the fridge so it would be level, and no one ate any of it. And then the dog wouldn’t eat it.

    If you still want to serve a jello thing, I love lime mixed with canned crushed pineapple (canning deactivates the enzymes that make it not set up) and cottage cheese, all mixed together.

    Comment by Rebekah — November 10, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  12. I have two family favorites that are completely embarrassing to describe to other people. One is hopelessly redneck but SO DELICIOUS! Get ready. Here it goes: Melt one big block Hershey bar. Stir into a container of cool whip. Spread the chocolatey cool whip into a graham cracker pie crust and freeze. Voila! Hershey bar pie! OMG, hilarious and delectable. The other looks like a giant log of poo, but is also delicious. Called “Stained glass window cookies.” Melt a bunch of chocolate chips, stir in some nuts and colored mini marshmallows. Form into a giant log on waxed paper and refrigerate until set up. Slice. Mouthwatering! My mother is quite the gourmet, and none of us would trade these desserts for anything more fa fa or less embarrassing to tell people about. I think you should go for it with the salad. Good times.

    Comment by Beth — November 10, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  13. If the aluminum mold itself has any sort of beauty or interest, use THAT to remember your grandmother and her recipe. Put a home-made snack mix to munch on pre-dinner (once I figured out it’s just butter and seasonings I do this for everything). Then you can enjoy reminiscing without worrying about making or eating the jello concoction.

    Comment by Leah — November 10, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

  14. Poll the family. If Moldy Salad is a sentimental favorite, make it using your grandmother’s recipe. If everyone ate it out of politeness, fill the mold with something else: red and white bonbons, red & silver kisses, fresh cranberries & marshmallows…something to evoke the memory of the salad and your grandmother.

    I would totally play it like I was bringing the salad just to mess with my sibs, but I’m evil like that.

    Comment by Carole — November 10, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  15. My mom makes something called “green stuff” that’s basically green Jell-O, cottage cheese, Cool Whip, and pineapple. I like it, but it’s not something I can do a lot of at a time. And it’s not really a make-ahead – an hour before hand is prime time for tossing everything into the bowl.

    On topic, however, one of the reasons my mother refuses, flat-out, to make any dish that my grandmother, great-grandmother, or great aunts have made is that, even if you follow the recipe exactly, it will always be compared to the original.

    She won’t make any sweet-and-sour cabbage or kluski for anyone (except me! ha-ha, I win!) in the family, because they’ll all compare it to what my great aunt makes. Her stance is that, until they haven’t had it for so long that they just think of it fondly without any real idea of what it tasted like, they won’t be happy with what she’s made.

    So, I agree. Poll the family, see what they think. I would be more inclined to have something a little more posh and tasty, unless the majority wants the exact same thing.

    Comment by Cassie — November 10, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

  16. My grandmother was a wonderful hostess and life of the party who somehow maintained her home as a “peace zone” through all the family ructions over the years, a cook she wasn’t. One of Grandma’s signature dishes which lives on in family lore is a roast chicken that she would lovingly baste with grape jelly and never fully done. She stopped making this before I was born.

    One I can remember is a sweet potato casserole made of canned sweet potatoes purreed with orange juice and topped with canned pineapple rings with a marshmallow in the center that was then topped with a maraschino cherry. It was a childhood favorite of us kids because of the marshmallow. Every other part was pretty awful.

    I remember that my mom experimented with jello when I was a kid, but I think that’s more my fault than anything else.

    Comment by Sara A. — November 11, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

  17. Oh Plummy, it turns out we have something in common: grandmothers who could not cook! Mine felt that clothes were God’s way of telling us not to walk around with our junk hanging out, and that food was God’s way of keeping us from keeling over from starvation, and anyone who asked more of either was a sinful thing.

    And then she wound up with a beloved granddaughter who adores dress up and is a foodie.

    Every summer when we would visit Grannie, my brothers and I would nearly starve. We were used to Mom’s fabulous cooking, so waking up to burnt toast, scrambled eggs the consistency of rubber hoses left out in the sun too many years, and a small bowl of overcooked oatmeal really, really didn’t do much for us. And Mom suffered the indignity of instant coffee. At home, she ground her own beans in the sixties, before anyone thought that was a rational thing to do.

    After breakfast, we would all head over to visit my great aunt, where Mom could get a decent cup of Joe and my brothers and I would have fresh, fluffy biscuits with the gorgeous preserves my grandmother had made. That’s the thing, Grannie could cook two things supremely well: preserves of just about any kind and fruit cobblers. Hers were the best cobblers I’ve ever eaten. But it was Auntie Fan who knew how to cook and how to eat!

    Count me among those advising you to poll the family as to whether they want moldy salad and not mess with the recipe. And sometimes people do want things on the table not so much because they want to eat them, but because it’s comforting to have the continuity.

    Comment by Twistie — November 12, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  18. I had this aunt that put everything into a mold. Even things you wouldn’t expect to me in a mold were in a mold, like the ones in the different shapes. Remember those? Shaped like a fish or something? Anyway, we all laughed, but I really miss those molds and the food was amazing.

    Comment by Tovah — November 26, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

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