That quivery, shivery, sweet, cool, light-tasting concoction that’s barely a flavor without additives of some kind — oranges, carrots, celery, whipped cream, pineapple, coconut, sour cream, apples — has always been what we called “a Kansas thing” for us transplanted Californians.
Out here, in the country, Jell-O is synonymous with salad, even though they’ve tried to make it useful in other ways like Jell-O blocks to play with and Jell-O poke-it-in flavoring in cakes. And of course we can’t forget Jell-O pie filling.
Country ladies for decades have traded recipes and tips, sharing their secrets for a mouth-watering taste treat where everyone licked the bowl clean at potlucks.
One such Jell-O recipe was Margarete Utech’s orange Jell-O salad that she always brought to funerals and dinners at the senior center in Ramona. It was so yummy good that my sister asked for her recipe and this is what Margarite told her:
“1 large box orange Jell-O
1 can 16 1/2 oz crushed pineapple
1 12 oz Cool Whip
1 c coconut
2 c buttermilk
1/2 c chopped pecans
You take a big box of orange Jell-O and add ¾ cup of hot water to dissolve it. Squeeze juice from pineapple into kettle and melt Jell-O in it on the stove — no other water is used. When cooled slightly add everything else, mix and refrigerate overnight.”
Right before Christmas, when we were getting together with the Fike cousins at Joe’s up in Lawrence, my sister made Margarite’s salad for the Christmas potluck. We hadn’t eaten it in ages and with 20-some people, it disappeared in a flash. I could have eaten more!
So, while I was in California over Christmas break, I began thinking about that Jell-O salad and thought maybe I’d surprise my kids and make it. First, I had to have the recipe, so I called Jess and asked her to text it to me. You can see how much I’ve begun to lean on all that phone technology that I shunned for so long?
She sent it and I descended on the local Safeway to pick up the ingredients. I got the pineapple, the Cool Whip, the buttermilk, the shredded coconut and then went hunting for Jell-O.
This store was once my old stomping grounds and I thought I knew my way around the aisles fairly easily, but I couldn’t find the Jell-O. Up and down I went, finding 3 million kinds of cereal, hundreds of flavors of coffee, baby products galore, and rows and rows of wines.
Finally, out of desperation, I found a clerk stocking the shelves and asked where I might find the Jell-O. He looked at me, puzzled, scratched his head and said, “I think it’s on aisle 12B; but we’d better go check.” He finally found it on a lower shelf — 20-some boxes of Jell-O flavors with a sign that said “1/2 Price Sale.” I had to laugh!
Really? This is what has happened to Jell-O in the Napa Valley? These boxes in their little shelf space, left there so long they were expiring? Evidently, not as much call for Jell-O in California as there is in Kansas.
I did find a large box of orange flavor (there were only two available) that guaranteed there was no high-fructose sugar inside. By contrast, there were more boxes claiming to be sugar-free.
Once home I made my salad and put it in the fridge to “set up” — but it didn’t.
I called my sister and said, “What did I do wrong? This Jell-O is still soupy?”
She wanted to know if I’d added too much buttermilk or not enough Cool Whip. Just in case, I went back to the store for that last box of orange Jell-O.
“So,” I said to my daughter, “to make this stuff set up do I add more Jell-O or Cool Whip?”
She suggested Cool Whip so that’s what I did. My bowl of Jell-O was growing by leaps and bounds. Everything else in the fridge was moving over to make room.
The next morning I checked my salad — still soupy. I didn’t ever serve it. Jana and I nibbled at it surreptitiously. It tasted good, but it was not the kind of salad that would work well on a plate.
I threw it out.
“Maybe that Jell-O was old,” I thought, “or maybe this old gal read the recipe wrong?” Disappointment loomed.
It’s another day in the country in Kansas and I just visited my favorite grocery store, where right before my wondering eyes appeared the aisle with Jell-O products. Would you believe nine shelves high, 12+ feet long — two sections of Jell-O, one for fruit flavors, one for pie fillings. I whipped out my phone and took a picture to send my daughter!
“It’s another day in the country, kid, and look at all this Jell-O!”