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Vintage Kitchen: Winter Salad

There’s history in cookbooks.

Recipes get passed through generations. Some people can look through a Betty Crocker cookbook or a Joy of Cooking and find recipes they have used for decades. The same recipes their mothers used, and their mothers before.

That’s not the case for every cookbook. Some are used briefly, then pushed aside as fads and tastes change. Those are the books I love. Vintage recipes that truly represent a snapshot in time. Cooking styles of a bygone era. 

One of the hallmark ingredients of a specific period: gelatin.

Gelatin’s history is a long one. According to Serious Eats, jellied dishes were popular as far back as Medieval Europe, when it was used by higher classes—those who could afford a kitchen staff large and strong-stomached enough to rend the requisite animal bones.

By the mid-nineteenth century, instant gelatin came onto the market. Inexpensive and accessible, they allowed home cooks to stretch their grocery budget and create inarguably glorious and clean-looking meals.

There were recipes for every course of a meal. Cantaloupe and avocado salad to start. Molded chicken loaf for dinner. Peach Delight for dessert. Entire cookbooks were dedicated to the art of cooking with gelatin until it eventually fell out of fashion.

Those cookbooks, those jiggly slices of culinary history, can still be found on dusty bookshelves and in estate sales and antique malls throughout the nation. And they can also be found on my desk at EstateSales.NET. Many of my co-workers are too young to have experienced the glory of Jell-O salads, so with the help of Better Meals with Gel-Cookery, I decided to change that.

It was tough to choose just the right recipe. While some dishes appeared downright delightful, others seemed like odd combinations of food all joined together by an incongruously flavored gelatin. Just as estate sale shoppers are always on the hunt for a good deal, if you hunt through any vintage cookbook, you're bound to come across something delicious. This one is no different.

I was certain everyone would enjoy the velvet texture of Chocolate Sponge, which is rich with cocoa flavor, and reminiscent of a thick mousse. I considered making molded macaroni and cheese, which I have yet to try, but it at least had a name that wouldn’t scare people off. But neither recipe captured the oeuvre of the retro gelatin salad.

I had to go big or go home.

When an ice storm threatened the region, I knew what I had to make. Winter Salad. White like the snow that closed area schools, but with green and red and yellow bits in it that are probably a metaphor for something, too.

The dish technically had the makings of a salad. There was lettuce. There was shredded cheese. There was green pepper, celery, and olives. But then there were oddities. Gelatin, of course. And vinegar. And whipped cream. And mayo.

Yes, this would do nicely.

I’m no stranger to gelatin. I have made Jell-O Jigglers and fed them to an upset stomach on more than one occasion. I am a rockstar at home-made marshmallows. But a gelatin salad was not something I ever expected to add to my wheelhouse. You could say I was jiggling with anticipation.

But you probably shouldn’t.

The recipe starts innocently enough. I softened a packet of gelatin in ½ cup of cold water, then added ¾ cup of hot water and stirred until the powder dissolved. I added ½ teaspoon of salt, ¼ cup of vinegar, and allowed it all to chill in the refrigerator until it was, as the recipe dictated, “the consistency of unbeaten egg whites.”

As it cooled, I prepared the mix-ins:

1 ½ cup of shredded American cheese 
½ cup sliced stuffed olives
½ cup diced celery
¼ cup green peppers
½ cup whipping cream, whipped

Once the gelatin thickened, I took a hand mixer and blended until it was fluffy and doubled in size. It took about three minutes for the smell of vinegar to fill the kitchen, and the airy concoction to fill half of my bowl, meaning it was ready.

I added all the “mix-in” ingredients to my bowl and gently folded them, trying to keep the gelatin from losing air, but also making sure the thick whipped cream was well-incorporated.

I’m not going to lie to you, it didn’t look appealing. And as news and aromas spread around the office, I worried I wouldn’t get any takers when it came time to try the finished product.

I sprayed my mold (in this case, a bundt pan) with cooking spray. This step was not called for in Better Meals with Gel Cookery, but I had little luck “unmolding” the ungreased pans used in the trial recipes I made leading up to this fateful day. I had one shot at this. I was not going to throw it, or a mangled winter salad, away.

I poured the mixture into the pan and put it in the refrigerator. It chilled for almost 24 hours, though it only took around four hours for it to fully set. 

When unmolding time arrived, I set the pan in warm water for a minute or two to loosen the salad and turned it over onto a piece of parchment paper. I then transferred the fluffy ring onto a bed of salad greens. It wasn’t a graceful transition, but everything remained in tact.

The recipe calls for the salad to be served with salad dressing or mayonnaise. I chose the latter in order to avoid having to decide on a dressing flavor. And to keep with the snowy white “winter” motif. Gelatin dishes are about presentation, after all. Every salad tells a story.

My coworkers gathered to see my final product. They were intrigued, but understandably skeptical—particularly when it came to the large glob of mayo in the middle of the already odd-looking “salad.” While many people were willing to observe, four brave souls were willing to step up and taste my glorious Winter Salad. 

In the days leading up to this experiment, I shared the recipe with a few people. While most were cautiously optimistic, the optimism was nowhere to be seen at moment of truth. While the reviews were generally unfavorable, it was the texture, rather than the flavor, that was most criticized. Gelatin is more closely associated with sweet dishes today, rather than savory. It seems our brave taste-testers were simply not ready for the flavor / consistency combination.

The reviews of this recipe were unsurprising—the combination of whipped cream, olives, celery, American cheese, and mayo was an unappealing prospect. There are recipes in the book with modern-day appeal—this simply may not be one of them. But its appearance in a cookbook suggests someone enjoyed it at one time. Was it you?


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