When Jell-O salad was a status symbol
By David L. Bristow, Editor
We don’t have to explain that traditional Midwestern salads usually don’t include lettuce. “Salad” traditionally means some sort of fruit suspended in gelatin with whipped topping.
The editors of the Nebraska Centennial First Ladies’ Cookbook (1966) agreed, opening that section of the cookbook with the paired photos of a pineapple-cucumber molded salad and Snake River Falls near Valentine. The cookbook was compiled by Nebraska First Lady Maxine Morrison and edited by Cliffs’ Notes co-founder Catherine Hillegass.
This copy belonged to Maxine Kessinger of Bancroft, Nebraska.
Jell-O salads had a special significance at mid-twentieth century gatherings, as South Dakota poet and essayist Kathleen Norris explained in her 1993 book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. “One has to think in terms of status,” she writes.
“Status and electricity. It wasn’t until the advent of electric refrigeration that Jell-O became a staple of the potluck supper or the women’s club luncheon, and that meant town women could serve Jell-O long before country women. Jell-O remained elusive for the most remote rural women until well into the 1950s.”
Long after everyone had electricity, the Jell-O salad remains a staple of many family, church, and community gatherings.
Here are a few “salad” recipes from the centennial cookbook, starting with the pineapple-cucumber molded salad shown in the photo. You can almost hear your aunt’s laughter and feel the metallic creak of folding chairs in the church basement.
Maxine Morrison, compiler, and Catherine J. Hillegass, editor, Nebraska Centennial First Ladies’ Cookbook (Lincoln: Centennial Press, 1966).
Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 136.