Jell-O Journalism: Investigating the Origins of Watergate Salad

Yum. / (Watergate Salad) lauraag/iStock via Getty Images; (Background) Elena Emchuk/iStock via Getty Images

When coverage of the Watergate scandal dominated newspapers during the 1970s, not even the food sections were spared. Recipes for “Watergate salad”— a lumpy, mint-hued mélange of pistachio pudding, canned crushed pineapple, chopped nuts, marshmallows, and whipped topping that fell firmly on the dessert end of the Jell-O salad spectrum—began cropping up around 1974.

Less clear was where the recipe came from—or why exactly it was named after the Nixon administration’s criminal schemes (if it even was).

Chock-Full of Nuts

pistachio cake
A modern take on Watergate cake. / MurzikNata/iStock via Getty Images

Watergate salad wasn’t the only popular pistachio-flavored confection from the ’70s. There was also Watergate cake, which typically called for pistachio pudding mix, white cake mix, club soda, eggs, oil, nuts, and coconut. Its frosting comprised whipped topping and … more pistachio pudding mix. 

The cake seems to have slightly preceded its salad spin-off, with recipes first appearing in newspapers in 1973. One Pennsylvania woman, who received hers from a friend in September 1972, speculated that someone may have dubbed it “Watergate cake” because the Watergate break-in and the debut of Royal Desserts’ pudding pistachio mix both occurred in June of that year.

Other recreational bakers favored punny theories instead. 

“I don’t know where the recipe originated,” Christine Hatcher told Hagerstown, Maryland’s The Morning Herald in September 1974, “and I don’t know why it’s called ‘Watergate Cake’ unless it’s because of all the nuts that are in it!” 

Richard Nixon Resigns
Richard Nixon announces his resignation on August 9, 1974. / Dirck Halstead/GettyImages

The moniker also reflected a larger trend at play throughout the Watergate era: finding humor at the unlikely intersection of federal malfeasance and the culinary arts. During a performance in September 1973, pianist Key Howard quipped that a Watergate salad he’d prepared “didn’t go over too well because it had so many bugs in it.” 

Earlier that summer, in the thick of the Senate’s Watergate hearings, a group of seven friends from Boston had actually published a cookbook of more than 100 recipes inspired by Richard Nixon’s long, slow fall from grace. The Watergate Cookbook (Or, Who’s in the Soup?), written by “The Committee to Write the Cookbook,” had starters like “Nixon’s Perfectly Clear Consommé,” “Liddy’s Clam-Up Chowder,” and “Magruder’s Dandy Ly’in Salad”; entrees from “Mitchell’s Cooked Goose with Stuffing” to “Cox’s In-Peach Chicken”; and extras like “Hunt’s Hush Puppies.”

A Scandal-Less Water Gate

All things considered, it seems like Watergate cake’s most probable provenance boils down to this: An enterprising baker concocted a pistachio-flavored cake in the early 1970s and christened it after the biggest crisis rocking the Oval Office. The recipe-swapping mill helped spread it across the country, and it didn’t take long for someone to reimagine it as a sugary salad.

watergate salad
"Delicious" Watergate salad at a Hy-Vee in 2014. / Charles Kremenak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

That said, it’s also possible that Watergate cake existed before any burglars breached the offices of the Democratic National Committee. According to one oft-repeated origin story, the dessert was so named because it was served, in some form or another, at the Watergate Hotel (pre-scandal). While there’s no evidence to support this theory, we do know of another Watergate cake—or, to be precise, Water Gate cake—once served right next door.

In 1941, about two decades before construction began on the Watergate Complex, restaurateur Marjory Hendricks opened the Water Gate Inn where the Kennedy Center now stands. Until it was condemned in 1966, the inn welcomed diners with a menu of Pennsylvania Dutch fare—and “Water Gate Ice Box Cake” with chocolate sauce. 

watergate complex
Watergate from above. / Phototreat/iStock via Getty Images

As chocolate didn’t feature in the Watergate cakes and salads that came later—and icebox cakes traditionally contain wafers or cookies in addition to whipped cream—it’s not a perfect match. But icebox cakes do sometimes include fruit and pudding, and the fact that the inn’s Water Gate cake predated Nixon’s presidential tenure could at least shed light on the genesis of the Watergate Hotel theory.

Whatever the case, Watergate salad eventually eclipsed its cakey kin, no doubt bolstered by the recipe printed on Jell-O’s pistachio pudding mixes beginning in the mid-1980s. Though it was labeled “Pistachio Pineapple Delight” and didn’t call for marshmallows, its resemblance to classic Watergate salad was unmistakable. In 1993, according to Kraft, the recipe was revised to include marshmallows and renamed “Watergate salad.” One version of the story alleges that the update happened because people kept asking the company for its Watergate salad recipe, but Kraft “can’t substantiate” that or any other “urban [myth] regarding the name change.”

You can find the Jell-O recipe for Watergate salad—marshmallows included—here.