Jiggling Off into the Sunset

An appetizer? A side dish? A dessert? All of the above. That’s the beautiful, mysterious versatility of Jell-O.

Summer, 2020 / No. 45
Thomas Blanchard

A list of inventions that have revolutionized our modern world would need to mention cars, penicillin, and Instagram filters. But it would also have to include Jell-O. Take a moment to consider Jell-O’s jiggly powers. It can take any physical substance, be it Mandarin orange segments, canned fruit cocktail, or a Lee Press-On Nail (by accident—it happens), and suspend it in time. Literally. Jell-O defies gravity. It’s the original space food.

That said, Jell-O has earned a bad rap since it first wobbled its way into kitchens in 1897. That’s because people in the nineteen-fifties, sixties, and seventies were smoking bad weed and thought it was a good idea to combine Jell-O with all kinds of wrong things. Like vegetables. Or olives. Or meat. What kind of deranged individual thinks combining orange Jell-O with canned tomatoes is even remotely tasty, let alone edible?

But had I been too quick to judge the generations of Jell-O past? I consulted my copy of Joys of Jell-O, published in 1963, by General Foods. This book contains all kinds of messed-up recipes, including Ring-Around-the-Tuna, Ham Mousse, and Chicken Salad Surprise. (Surprise! It’s made with lemon Jell-O!) But not every recipe looked like a train wreck, and I had to admit there was something poetic about the moulded Jell-O salads. The photo for Sunset Salad was certainly eye-catching. And the ingredients—pineapple, carrots, and pecans—seemed . . . not awful.

Before you begin, there are a few key tips to ensure a successful Jell-O salad. If you’re using a mould, add a package of unflavoured gelatin to the Jell-O powder to ensure your salad holds its shape. Otherwise, you might end up with a Leaning Tower of Pisa Salad. Also, to get your salad to slide out successfully, spritz the inside of your mould with cooking spray. Joys of Jell-O also has a few recommendations. Give your salad plenty of time to set. When you’re ready to release your masterpiece, use water to moisten both the exposed bottom surface of the Jell-O and a chilled plate. This will make it easier to reposition the salad, if needed. Run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen it from the mould. Then submerge the mould in warm water for about ten seconds. Cover the opening with your chilled plate and flip the mould over. If it doesn’t release, try submerging it in warm water for another ten seconds. Mine took a few tries. If it doesn’t come out, don’t panic. Breathe deeply and relax. You will give birth. Let nature—and gravity—work their magic.

So how does Sunset Salad taste? Well, not as bad as you might think. True, there are a lot of textures going on, whether it’s the crunch of the carrots and nuts or the squish of the Jell-O and juicy bites of pineapple. But overall, the flavours work pretty well together. It’s like a carrot cake. Without the cake. Or the cream cheese frosting (which, let’s be honest, is the only reason anyone eats carrot cake).

As for how you should serve it, the choice is yours. Serve Sunset Salad as an appetizer, a side salad, or even a dessert. That’s the beautiful versatility of Jell-O. It can’t be categorized. Jell-O is a chameleon, a mystery, a shape-shifter. And that, my friends, is the true joy of Jell-O.

Sunset Salad

Ingredients

2 3-ounce packages lemon or orange Jell-O

1 7-ounce package gelatin

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups boiling water

1 19-ounce can of crushed pineapple or pineapple tidbits

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cups coarsely grated carrots

⅔ cup coarsely chopped pecans (optional)

Directions

1. Dissolve Jell-O, gelatin, and salt in boiling water. Add undrained pineapple and lemon juice.

2. Chill in a bowl until very thick. Fold in carrots and pecans.

3. Pour into individual moulds or one 7-cup mould. Chill until very firm (overnight, to be safe).

4. Garnish with additional pineapple, if desired.

This recipe makes enough for a 7-cup mold. If you want a smaller amount, halve the recipe to make six side salads, or about 3 cups.

Brian Francis is the author of two novels. His most recent, Natural Order, was selected by the Toronto Star, Kobo and the Georgia Straight as a best book of the year. His first novel, Fruit, was a Canada Reads finalist and named one of CBC's one hundred novels that make You proud to be a Canadian. He writes a monthly advice column for Quill and Quire, and is a regular columnist for CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. Last updated summer, 2018.