Jell-O Molds, Jell-O Rings, Jiggling All the Way

Photo of Russell and Betty Williams.
Betty Williams never failed to impress with her Christmas Eve dinners. The holiday spread often included ham, sweet potatoes, green beans, mashed potatoes, a tray of various pickles, fresh breads and Jell-O salads.

I’ll admit, for someone who cooks professionally, I don’t care much for following recipes. But for someone who seldom follows them, I sure have an affinity for collecting the old ones. Little discolored, badly-worn, musty-smelling notecards with hard-to-read cursive assemblages of ingredients, amounts and detailed instructions. Yeah, those — I’ll take ‘em.

There are times I feel like the ameteur baseball card collector I was in fourth grade, only these days Nolan Ryan’s All-Star Edition and Jose Canseco’s MVP cards have been replaced with Flossie Hannah’s Vinegar Pie and Mary Stout’s Bread and Butter Pickles. Now my growing collection celebrates heroes known for wielding rolling pins and cast iron skillets in home kitchens, not padded leather mitts and hickory Louisville Sluggers in grandiose stadiums.

Especially around the holidays, most recipes in my possession take me straight back to the kitchen of my grandma, Betty Williams. You could say it’s where my career as a chef began — with my tiny, Velcro-strapped shoes planted on the top level of the beige, three-tiered stool I climbed to reach the countertop. Whether I was helpful or not, I looked forward to scaling those steps and making the traditional holiday cookies. That was only part of the magic that unfolded in her small, yellow-floored kitchen each December. I don’t have the trading cards to prove it, but Christmas was her culinary World Series, and she was victorious every time.

Black and white photo of Betty and Russell Williams in front of the Christmas tree.

Betty and Russell Williams at Christmas in the early 1960s.

I may rarely follow recipes precisely, but I still cherish the way they give us more than a road map to consistency in our cooking. Their contents help us learn about the cooks who came before us, and the traditions they carried on. What inspired them? What spurred them to evolve? Recipes handed down over the years can inspire us to learn, to piece together the stories that solidify food’s importance as a mark of our region’s constantly-changing cultural legacy.

This week, we’re featuring Lora Smith’s “Electric Jell-O,” a look at a particular instance of Appalachian culinary evolution based on that unique ingredient whose significance tends to spike around the holidays. Smith’s story was first published in 2016 in Gravy, a quarterly publication of the Southern Foodways Alliance. How, exactly, was it that Jell-O went from relative obscurity to near ubiquity in mountain communities?

I asked a similar question when I first opened my grandma’s recipe box several years after she passed. There were plenty of usual suspects for a cook with rural West Virginia roots — sweet potato, blueberry and rhubarb pies; canned tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, stewed tomatoes with salt-rising bread; dumplings, casseroles and pickles galore. But there was also an entire class of dishes one might not at first expect,​an assortment of salads and relishes with a base ingredient popularized by catchy radio jingles long before television ads planted J-E-L-L-O in the    minds of my similarly-aged peers.

Handwritten Jell-O recipe cards.

The recipe collection of Betty Williams, Mike Costello’s grandmother, contained handwritten recipes for traditional mountain fare, as well as a plethora of Jell-O salads, which became popular in rural kitchens in the mid-20th century.

Typically comprised of chopped vegetables, nuts and marshmallows encased in orange, red or green wobbly goodness, my grandma’s Jell-O recipes included Orange Jello with Carrots and Celery, Cranapple Salad, Cherry Jello Salad and Apple Jello Salad. Then there was a recipe noted, in parentheses, as “(favorite)”— the lime Jell-O-based Polly’s Salad from her nextdoor neighbor, Juanita Davis.

It wasn’t the presence of Jell-O recipes alone that I found surprising. After all, I have memories of brightly-colored, ring-shaped dishes jiggling about as they followed platters of ham, mashed potatoes and green beans being passed around the holiday table. But their numbers, their frequency, the way in which Jell-O recipes dominated the salad category certainly made me add it to an endless list of topics I’d raise with my grandma, were she still around.

My interest was piqued again last summer, while I perused recipes collected at our farm in the 1930s and 40s by Carrie Blake, widow of Amy’s great-great grandfather, Bill. After Bill’s passing, Carrie tended the land and braved treacherous winters in a large, drafty farmhouse by herself for nearly four decades. During this time, she amassed an impressive lot of recipes, some shared by friends and neighbors, others cut and saved from the local newspaper, the Clarksburg (West Virginia) Exponent.

Included in the clippings pulled from the Exponent’s collection (“Favorite Recipes — Contributed by West Virginia Women,” later “Family Favorites — Contributed Recipes from Central West Virginia Homemakers”) were recipes for desserts, breads and meat dishes. But recipes in one particular class — Jell-O ​salads — outnumbered any other category.

Recipe newspaper clippings from the Clarksburg Exponent.

Long before Mike Costello and Amy Dawson moved to Lost Creek Farm, Carrie Blake was caretaking the land and collecting recipes in the kitchen. Many of the recipes in her collection were clipped from the Clarksburg Exponent, which invited home cooks from central West Virginia to submit their favorites recipes.

There was the Congealed Salad from Mrs. E. B. Merryman of Nutter Fort, Yum Yum Salad from Weston’s Mrs. Gladys Helmick, and a Pineapple Ring from Mrs. Nellie Hawker of Wyatt. Blanche O’Dell recommended serving slices of Lime Delight Salad over leaf lettuce, topped with grated cheese and sprinkled with paprika. Thomas Cummings described Queen Salad — a lime Jell-O based dish with cabbage, carrots, green peppers and olives — as “a perfect side dish for a spaghetti meal.” Mrs. Edna Wood said Ribbon Salad — a recipe that includes three different flavors of Jell-O—should be made with red, green and white colored flavors during “the yuletide season.”

As the recipes have taught us, Jell-O is one of those special ingredients that brings out the best of our imaginations. Vegetables, grapes and almonds buried in a vivid, sweet, translucent mass? Sure, why not? Don’t you want to throw in some marshmallows while you’re at it? Heck, go ahead and call it salad, then pair it with spaghetti.

Isn’t imagination what makes the holiday season so special anyway? I think it is, so here I am, imagining that somehow, somewhere, Betty Williams, Carrie Blake and the contributors to the Exponent are sharing recipes and passing platters around the holiday table. Or, maybe, just maybe, they’re rockin’ around the Christmas tree, providing a steady wiggle to Jell-O’s perpetual jiggle.

Mike Costello.

Contributing editor Mike Costello (@costellowv) is a chef, farmer and storyteller. He and his partner Amy Dawson operate Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia. Through his cooking and writing, Mike strives to tell important stories about a misrepresented and misunderstood region he’s always called home.

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