Retro Jell-O - Mid-Century Modern Food
Once upon a time in the mid-20th-century, you couldn't go to a luncheon, dinner party,
church social or potluck without running into at least one menu item made with Jell-O
(also known as Jello - a misspelling of the trademark name for the original fast-mix
sweetened and multi-fruit-flavored gelatin dessert).
My mother was a queen of Jell-O molds. Along with large molds, she owned a set of
small plastic ones for individual servings. As a child I loved them, especially filled with
her custom mix of cottage cheese, pineapple and lime green Jell-O. It's still my favorite
Jell-O flavor combination.
The holidays always featured a cranberry and Jell-O concoction served in a special red glass bowl reserved especially for that purpose. And her luncheons and dinner
parties often included Jell-O molded with vegetables and meat or seafood, served on a
bed of lettuce, accented with dabs of mayonnaise.
Jell-O featured predominantly in chilled salads and desserts, although it also turned up
in baked goods. During my childhood it was everywhere. Then one day, about the
time nouvelle cuisine appeared, it seemed like the ubiquitous Jell-O mold vanished from
everywhere except cafeterias.
Still, many cooks out there remained loyal to the Jell-O tradition and continued to trade
favorite recipes. As a newspaper food editor for many years, I was responsible for a
succession of recipe request and swap columns, as well as recipe features. I came away
with a large collection of recipes, including more Jell-O recipes that I can wave a mold at.
The recipes presented here are all part of that collection, shared from one cook to another,
and another. In fact, many of them are obviously variations of popular groups of
ingredients like the lime Jell-O, cottage cheese and pineapple combination made by my
There is something quintessentially American about these Jell-O creations. And with the
resurgence of interest in all things mid-century (mid-20th-century, that is), I think it's time
to bring back that mid-century meal icon, the Jell-O mold.
BTW, if you're looking for mid-century Jell-O molds, try estate sales. That's where I
found most of my own collection - a whole boxful for a bargain basement bid!
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