Ingredients for Watergate Salad (Photo:Mark Pellegrini/Wiki Commons CC BY-SA 1.0)
About 10 years ago, Emily Weiss’ sister began making a very special salad that she learned from her in-laws. “It consists of Cool Whip, chopped Granny Smith apples, and chopped up mini Snickers bars,” says Weiss, a food critic for Minneapolis City Pages and a native Minnesotan. “It is the very definition of a guilty pleasure. I hate how much I like it.”
Snickers salad is not a creation of just one family, but a Minnesota standard, just one of a surprisingly large variety of “dessert salads” which maintain their place in the pantheon of Minnesota cuisine. These are desserts not often seen in the rest of the country, desserts consisting of various sweet things, typically pre-made or shelf-stable items like packaged cookies or canned fruit, suspended in a sweet housing of pudding, Cool Whip, whipped cream, Jell-O, or permutations thereof.
But why dessert salads? And why Minnesota?
Minnesota is historically dominated by just a few immigrant and religious groups, chiefly Scandinavians and Lutherans. That’s beginning to change; the state has, for example, the highest numbers of Hmong people, who hail from the mountainous intersections of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, of any country other than the first three in that list, and more than currently live in Thailand. The Twin Cities boast plenty of fantastic, cutting-edge restaurants. But Swedish and Norwegian culture still dominate in Minnesota, and the persistence of dessert salads is likely due to the very particular way in which American culture distorts the tastes and traditions of any group who moves here.
Snickers Salad. (Photo: RoyalBroil/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Dessert salads are typically large, served in big bowls, at gatherings and special occasions, rather than a regular family weeknight meal. “Midwestern, Lutheran, Scandinavian, it’s like very hearty dishes, things you bring in a pan that will feed a lot of people, set it all on a table and everyone can feed themselves. I feel like having food that can be brought in a single dish is crucial,” said Katie Heaney, a Minnesotan writer who has written about her home state for BuzzFeed. There are many different types, but with limited room for interpretation.
Common dessert salads include: glorified rice (white rice, whipped cream, canned pineapple, maraschino cherries);Watergate salad, sometimes known as “green stuff” (pistachio pudding, Cool Whip, canned pineapple, mini marshmallows of the type found in breakfast cereals); cookie salad (buttermilk, vanilla pudding, whipped cream, canned mandarin oranges, fudge stripe cookies); Jell-O salad (Jell-O, various canned fruits, mini marshmallows); the aforementioned Snickers salad; and the sole example that achieved national fame, ambrosia salad (whipped cream, canned pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, mini marshmallows, and shredded coconut).
The easy interpretation of these dishes would be that they are holdovers from the 1960s, all Mad-Men era dishes long discarded by most of the country. But there’s much more to the story. These are dishes that speak to the community, the traditions, the old country tastes and textures, and the climate of Minnesota.
Both Weiss and Heaney mentioned “church culture” when I asked them about dessert salads, a concept much stronger in Minnesota than in many other states because there are so few Christian denominations; about a quarter of the population identifies as Catholic and another quarter identifies as Lutheran. Over 90 percent of Sweden, Iceland, Norway, and Denmark are Lutheran, but only around 5 percent of the total population in the U.S. In those parts of Minnesota, Lutheran church events are the major gathering places for the entire community, and to feed a large group of people, it’s not that surprising that people would lean towards products that can be easily obtained, that are easy to prepare, that don’t go bad, and that are extremely cheap and filling.
Jello Salad (Photo: Michael Lehet/Flickr)
On the other hand, people gather everywhere, and generally they don’t land on the same foods. Just ask a Texan about barbecue, a Jerseyite about red-sauce Italian, or a Virginian about blue crabs. These dishes have to come from somewhere. So where the hell did “Snickers salad” come from?
Cool Whip and canned fruit may seem merely American, the product of an American love of convenience, corn syrup, and a nascent food culture that was heavily swayed by new technologies like canning and “instant” foods, but it’s not hard to connect these dessert salads to more traditional Scandinavian fare. “Rømmegrøt, a thick and rich rice pudding-type dish popular with Norwegians and Swedes alike, has many things in common with these creamy salads and is eaten as a celebratory dish, even in the summer,” says Weiss. And creaminess isn’t the only texture involved here: Jell-O is perhaps beloved in Minnesota more than in any state besides Utah, which crowned Jell-O its state snack.
“The proclivity toward/tolerance for gelatinous things must come from, in some capacity, eating lutefisk, right?” says Weiss. Lutefisk is a traditional Scandinavian dish that grew from a preservation method: whitefish, usually cod, is soaked in a lye solution. The lye causes the fish’s flesh to expand and break down its protein, producing a fish with a gelatinous texture. In few other parts of the western world is the texture of gelatin as beloved as in Scandinavia—and, in turn, in Minnesota. ”Jell-O salad is not really considered a dessert,” said Heaney. Instead it would be found on the table with savory dishes, like creamed corn, green beans, some sort of impressive meat (ham, maybe turkey), potato salad, and “hot dish,” which is the Minnesotan twist on the casserole and often includes tater tots.
Only in a place used to eating gelatinized fish would strawberry Jell-O embedded with canned pineapple be considered an accompaniment to a main course. And seen that way it’s easier to put aside circa-2015 food snobbery and see dessert salads for what they really are: A prime example of immigrant culture colliding with the new world of American convenience and coming up with something very weird. And probably delicious.