When Mrs. John E. Cooke entered a recipe contest sponsored by Knox Gelatine in 1905, she set expectations high: The New Castle, Pennsylvania, resident dubbed her submission “perfection salad.” Whether or not it lived up to the name depends on your taste. It featured common salad ingredients like chopped cabbage, red peppers, and celery—all suspended in a gelatinous package. To serve it, Mrs. Cooke recommended scooping the squishy concoction into hollowed-out bell peppers.
Perfection salad didn’t win the top prize, but it was hardly a failure. The panel of judges, which included Boston Cooking-School Cook Book author Fannie Farmer, awarded Mrs. Cooke third place and sent her home with a $100 prize. And that was just the beginning of the dish’s success. Though modern diners may think perfection salad stretches the definitions of both perfection and salad, it turned out to be exactly what Americans were craving at a pivotal moment in history.
Though it occasionally appears at church potlucks and Thanksgiving celebrations, Jell-O salad is largely considered a relic of a bygone era. It’s hard to believe that half a century ago the dish was seen as an elegant addition to any dinner spread—and while today it has become a symbol of mid-century convenience cuisine, Jell-O salad actually has a surprisingly long history. Let’s start at the recipe’s not-so-humble beginnings.
Putting the Gel(atin) in Jell-O Salad
Gelatin was a delicacy in pre-industrial Europe. To make it, cooks boiled ingredients like animal bones and tendons for hours, strained the liquid, and waited for a jelly-like substance to congeal on the surface. This gel was made from collagen, the proteins that provide structure to connective tissues in the body. The cartilage connecting bones contains a lot of collagen, which is why animal bones are a common source of the ingredient in cooking.
Because drawing collagen out of bones is such a slow, labor-intensive process, only the wealthiest homes with fully-staffed kitchens had the resources to make gelatin outside of special occasions. These households made the most of it by molding gelatin into impressive structures called aspics that encased other components.
A proto-aspic recipe from 14th-century Italian physician Maino de Maineri featured fish boiled in wine and roasted bread soaked in vinegar. Dishes became even more elaborate as the centuries progressed. In the 18th century, famous French chef Marie-Antoine Carême brought gelatin to Napoleon’s imperial court. His aspics included fine ingredients such as truffles, sweetbreads, and calves’ tongues.
As is the case with many French foods, Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing gelatin to America. And as is the case with roughly all of those foods, it’s not true. There are recipes in the colonies for calves’ foot jellies decades before Jefferson started talking about them.
But Jefferson was a fan of jellied dishes. He had developed a taste for the unique texture while living overseas, and he had his enslaved chef, James Hemings, recreate it back home in Virginia. Hemings used the formal culinary training he received during Jefferson’s diplomatic mission to France to make a wine jelly flavored with lemon, sugar, and nutmeg.
The Science of Gelatin
As wealthy Americans started serving aspics at dinner parties, scientists were working to bring gelatin to the masses. Made from the parts of livestock many people throw away, gelatin had the potential to be a cheap protein source. It was the process of preparing it that required valuable time and labor most families couldn’t afford to spare.
American engineer Peter Cooper offered a solution to this conundrum when he secured a patent for the world’s first powdered gelatin in 1845. His product consisted of dried-up granules that could be reconstituted with water at home. Packages of Peter Cooper’s Gelatin were cheap, and turning it into something edible took a fraction of the time required to make the stuff from scratch.
Cooper’s patent [PDF] called for dissolving powdered gelatin in hot water and chilling the liquid to set it in a mold—not too different from what Jell-O makers do today. After processing gelatin, manufacturers slice up the substance and dry it; once the product has been dehydrated, it’s ground into a fine powder.
The special chemical properties of gelatin make it possible for home cooks to turn flavored powder into a jiggly dessert in the shape of their choice. At room temperature, collagen, which is what gelatin is made from, consists of a bunch of triple helices. These helices consist of three strands of amino acids, called polypeptide chains, wrapped around one another, with weak bonds holding them together. When boiling water is poured over dried gelatin these bonds dissolve and the helices fall apart, leaving a puddle of loose polypeptide chains.
Adding cold water to the liquid and chilling it in the fridge rebuilds the bonds and the triple helix structure, and any water that was added gets absorbed into the blob. The chains form a kind of net that catches any excess water in its gaps. The strength of the triple helix structure combined with these water pockets is what makes Jell-O jiggle while still holding the shape of the vessel it was set in.
Jell-O Breaks Through
Peter Cooper’s invention could have been a game changer, but there’s evidence that it never really caught on. In 1893, Philadelphia Cooking School teacher Sarah Tyson Rorer wrote a letter to the Knox Company asking them to create “the very same product” Cooper had already come up with, according to Carolyn Wyman’s Jell-O: A Biography. So it’s pretty clear that powdered gelatin hadn’t quite conquered the market.
Cooper’s patent had expired by then, and Knox did make their own version of the product—their unflavored powdered gelatin is still sold today, in fact. Other manufacturers created similar products, but it took a couple by the name of Pearle and May Wait to take us from gelatin to Jell-O. According to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Pearle “made and sold patent medicines, so he knew how to add colorings and flavorings to prettify products of unsavory origins—such as the boiled calves' feet used to make gelatin.”
May came up with the name Jell-O. She’s also credited with adding fruity flavorings to the product, likely using syrups originally developed to make the Waits' medicines more palatable. After struggling to turn the brand into a successful enterprise, Pearle sold it to the Genesee Pure Food Company for $450, or roughly $15,200 in 2023 dollars. Eventually, they were able to do what the Waits could not—make Jell-O a household name.
The Rise and Fall of Jell-O Salad
From the beginning, Jell-O was available in a variety of sweet flavors, like strawberry, orange, raspberry, and lemon. But this didn’t stop people from using it in savory applications as European chefs had done with aspic in the past. The convenience product was so novel that home cooks took to using the flavored versions in recipes that called for plain gelatin alongside lemon juice. This was how Jell-O “salads” that toed the line between dinner and dessert came to be.
When the Great Depression hit, Jell-O dishes in the style of Mrs. Cooke’s perfection salad became even more popular. In order to feed their families, home cooks couldn’t let any food go to waste. Popping previously cooked meat and vegetables into a Jell-O mold was a clever way to both preserve leftovers and repurpose them into new dishes. This frugal mindset was carried into World War II, when Jell-O salads became a way to stretch rations into an impressive meal.
The Jell-O craze reached its zenith in the 1950s. During this era, the women in charge of kitchens were faced with dueling expectations. Advancements in technology led to new appliances like refrigerators, as well as pre-prepared convenience items like TV dinners. This gave middle-class homemakers more free hours in the day. At the same time, the pressure for women to perform the role of the perfect American wife and mother was greater than ever after World War II and at the start of the Cold War.
At a 2013 lecture delivered at Harvard, historian Elizabeth Singer More noted that “There was a universal idea of female primacy in the home for the good of their children and the good of the nation.” The ideal way for women to serve their country in this time of national fear was by keeping population levels high in case war broke out with the Soviet Union. The housewife was also valuable as a symbol: In American propaganda, the country’s domestically-minded women provided a contrast to the Soviet women who worked in factories while leaving their children with government daycare workers.
All of this meant that if women did have more time thanks to new technologies, they were still expected to fill it with household tasks. This led to convenience food products being used to make home-cooked meals that required more labor than opening a can. Jell-O salad was a perfect example. It took a processed food—powdered gelatin—and turned it into an elaborate-looking dish that showcased the cook’s domestic skills. The colorful molds were reminiscent of the traditional aspics served to presidents and monarchs, but this 20th-century version was much cheaper and easier to prepare.
Much like the gelatins of the past, Jell-O salads in the 1950s were works of art. The recipes were all about presentation, and taste was arguably an afterthought. Cream cheese was sometimes folded into the Jell-O to change its opacity. Ingredients were chosen based on how they looked suspended in the mold: Fresh strawberry slices and marshmallows were “floaters,” while canned fruits and fresh grapes were “sinkers.” And like some kind of unholy birthday cake, Jell-O salad was often served with a frosting of mayonnaise spread on top.
There was no limit to what went inside a Jell-O salad. One Jell-O ad from the 1950s called for grated onion, cottage cheese, and fish salad in a lime gelatin mold. Eventually, the brand offered alternatives to customers who didn’t want to mix sweet flavors with seafood. Celery, seasoned tomato, and Italian salad Jell-O mixes were introduced in the 1960s, but the flavors were short-lived. By the mid-1970s, Jell-O salads had fallen out of fashion, and the company pulled the savory varieties from stores to focus on marketing its product as a dessert.
It only took a couple decades for Jell-O salad to go from fancy showstopper to kitschy oddity. Americans also became more conscious of their sugar intake in the 1970s, and they grew wary of salads that tasted like candy. By this time, the rigid gender roles that defined the 1950s had loosened, and more women were entering the workforce. A woman’s value was no longer tied to how well she layered fish into her Jell-O mold.
Jell-O Salad’s Kitschy Comeback
Jell-O salad may be mocked in the mainstream, but it’s far from dead. The Mid-Century Supper Club is one group keeping the dish alive in the form of throwback potlucks.
After joining a Flickr page showcasing recreations of recipes from the 1950s and ‘60s, friends and Bay Area residents Karen Finlay and Jennye Garibaldi decided to meet their fellow Betty Crocker cosplayers in real life. Since 2008, their dinner parties have showcased Jell-O molds alongside retro delicacies like shrimp Christmas trees, cocktail weenie towers, and pickle pinwheel platters.
And Jell-O salad isn’t limited to themed dinner parties. Many of the recipes that started on the backs of Jell-O boxes never stopped being family traditions. This is especially true in parts of the South, Midwest, and Utah, where gelatin is baked into the local cuisine—or rather, it’s boiled, cooled, and served with a dollop of mayonnaise on top.
This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.