February 28th, 2013

“People considered ketchup spicy”…

…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.


13 Responses to ““People considered ketchup spicy”…”

  1. waltj Says:

    Crisco on white bread? Blecccch! I do happen to like Jell-o, however, especially with fruit. Mandarin oranges and pear chunks are particular favorites of mine.

    Regarding ketchup, my mother regarded that particular condiment as a perfectly serviceable spaghetti sauce. Put a little oregano in it, a bit of grated Parmesan cheese on top of the spaghetti, and she had a quick dinner for a finicky 7-year-old (me). When you don’t know any better…

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    waltj: I LOVED ketchup on spaghetti. My neighbor’s mother used to make it into a gourmet dish. I am quite serious; it was stupendous. She put butter and ketchup on the cooked spaghetti, and then cooked it a second time (baked? sauteed? not sure). Delish.

    When I was very young my parents used to take us out to a really fine mom and pop Italian restaurant and I would order spaghetti with ketchup.

    Maybe I should write a post about this.

  3. Susanamantha Says:

    My mother used to make a great tomato aspic using lemon jello and tomato juice and horseradish. How about combining ketchup and jello?

  4. vanderleun Says:

    Well, neo, you have now gotten some serious nerd credentials (not that you didn’t have them before.) I say that because in the hit nerd sitcom The Big Band Theory alpha nerd Sheldon’s favorite dish is spaghetti with sauce and cut up hotdogs in it. It’s his favorite because his mother, a fundamentalist Christian from the Texas panhandle, used to make it for him as a child. And you can be sure she didn’t use any of that fancy-pants marinara when a bottle of Ketchup was at hand.

    BTW: I can attest to the fact that in France ketchup goes by the name “Le sauce American.”

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    vanderleun: Sheldon and I—separated at birth.

    Widely separated.

  6. John Says:

    My elementary school used to serve jello for lunch every day. Usually with whatever fruit they had chopped up and stirred in. Tolerable, but then somehow they got the idea to put pearl onions in lime jello…

    I’ve told a few people about this over the years and nobody believed me. Recently at a get-together the topic of school food came up and out of nowhere an old friend said, “what was with the lime jello with onions in it?”

  7. vanderleun Says:

    Separated at birth from Sheldon, Neo? In that case your name would be Missy and your singular description of Sheldon would be, “I once spent nine months with my legs wrapped around his head.”

    All revealed here:


  8. Sam L. Says:

    White bread and Crisco: The Horror, the horror.

    My mom made spaghetti with hot dog rounds, too.

  9. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    During my Navy days ketchup or as it was called, “Red Lead,” went with everything. Sure perked up those powdered eggs, mystery meats, and dehydrated potatoes.

    Jello was a staple aboard ships. Inexpensive and easy to produce, it was served frequently. If it had calories and was edible, we lapped it up. (Not much choice when the nearest restaurant was across many miles of ocean.)

    I still like jello as a light dessert, but Red Lead is gone forever. (Too much sugar and salt.) Although ketchup on spaghetti does sound interesting.

  10. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I once read that all the nutrients for survival were in Lime Jello. That doesn’t make it true…

  11. Gringo Says:

    I am reminded of “Mock Pizza” from my childhood, which consisted of ketchup + oregano on a saltine cracker.

    What to eat if you have no way of satisfying a pizza Jones.

    My Scots-Irish mother made a DELICIOUS pot of spaghetti, which we had fairly regularly. A Sicilian friend approved.

    She also baked a lot of bread. Don’t know why she didn’t try pizza very much, it at all. Or why I didn’t try to make pizza when I began cooking myself during my high school years.

  12. Jewel Says:

    Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise?

    Hold the ketchup.


  13. J Kok Says:

    I’ve also read that when Jello first appeared it was a status symbol because it showed you had a refrigerator.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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