…back in the 1950s, according to food writer Ruth Clark, a specialist in the food of that era.
Well, I must say that I don’t remember that, although I do recall that ketchup was considered to be an almost universal sauce, suitable for enhancing the taste of nearly everything except desserts.
Which brings me to one of my favorite subjects: jello. Now, those of you who have followed my jello posts over the years may be under the understandable impression that I like jello. The truth is that I don’t much care for it, and in particular have never had an affinity for the jello mold—with the single exception of one my late mother-in-law used to make. It was socko, a scrumptious concoction of jello (usually red) and canned fruit (always mandarin oranges were involved, but the rest could vary), and sour cream. I don’t even like sour cream, but this stuff was manna.
But I digress. Clark is interviewed on the subject of 50s food and is asked specifically about jello:
Why was Jell-O was such a big deal during this time?
Clark: I think there are a couple different reasons for that, kind of like when you ask someone, “Why did the Civil War start?” There are lots and lots of reasons. I think the main appeal of Jell-O was convenience. You could pour boiling water in it, add cold water, and then you have dessert.
Advertising was also a big part of Jell-O’s fame. I think it was in the ’30s that Jack Benny started talking about Jell-O on his radio show. He did the “J-E-L-L-O” thing, which became famous because everybody listened to Jack Benny. He also put out a Jell-O cookbook.
I think there was such a proliferation of advertising that it created this mindset that, hey, I can use Jell-O as an easy dessert or an easy lunch. I don’t have to mess around with it a lot. If you’ve looked through any stash of vintage cookbooks, invariably there’ll be at least one Jell-O recipe book in it because everybody owned one.
It’s really hard to say why the savory Jell-O salad became something. I was talking to my dad about this the other day, and he said it became this crazy thing in his family where every holiday, all my aunts would try to outdo each other with these fantastic, multi-layered gelatin molds.
Clark is correct as far as she goes, but she doesn’t go far enough. She’s ignoring the deeper history, which is explored in a book I just happen to have read about twenty-five years ago, entitled Perfection Salad, in which author Laura Shapiro reveals the Victorian roots of mid–twentieth-century trends. I don’t have a copy of that surprisingly entertaining book in front of me, but to the best of my recollection jello, although a newer product, was actually a continuation and simplification of the vogue for the more-difficult aspic vegetable mold that had flourished in Victorian times.
The reasoning behind those earlier aspic molds (and I say “reasoning” because the food movements of those times were reflections of philosophies of food and eating) was that vegetables were wild and unrefined and needed taming in order to be genteel, and the medium of the aspic (gelatin) mold was considered perfect for the task. It took the sprawling and uncultured mass of whatever—salad, or green beans that had been boiled until all semblance of structure was leached out of them—and made it into a delicate and coherent edifice fit for consumption at ladies’ luncheons and the like.
I am summarizing here from memory, but that was pretty much it as far as I recall. And I think the 50s impulse was a not altogether dissimilar one.
Likewise, a phenomenon that began in Victorian times and continued right through the 50s, but which you (mercifully!) don’t see too much these days, was the ubiquitous and completely tasteless white sauce, which covered everything and was thought to dress it up nicely with the perfect finishing touch.
And don’t get me started on another trend Shapiro described, the craze for white foods, which were thought to be more pure and therefore wholesome. The pinnacle of the genre was the Crisco sandwich on white bread.
Yes, the Crisco sandwich on white bread. Nuff said.