Meat covered in gelatinous goo was once a classic American comfort food.
If you pick up an old edition of Joy of Cooking, the venerable American cookbook, you’ll discover an unexpectedly large section devoted to one obscure dish. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the cookbook contained pages and pages of colorful concoctions called aspics, or savory Jell-O salads.
Sweet, fruity versions of Jello-O salad remain popular at funerals and church picnics across the South and Midwest. But aspics have largely disappeared. Jell-O salad is now nearly impossible to find in restaurants, and the savory, meaty, vegetable-laden recipes are all but forgotten. Today, very few Americans find shredded meat and vegetables suspended in translucent, gelatinous goo to be appetizing. So what accounts for Jell-O salad’s prior popularity?
In the post–World War II boom, instant and processed foods experienced a meteoric rise in the United States. Instant gelatin became a popular way to prepare snacks and sweets that once would have constituted labor-intensive projects. But in an equal and opposite reaction, the easier these recipes became, the more housewives used store-bought items in creative cooking projects. Making towering, molded Jell-O salads allowed them to cook for special occasions while still using convenient, mass-produced products.
In the 1970s, however, a shift toward healthier food and fresh ingredients ended Jell-O’s reign in American kitchens. By the 1980s, the savory Jell-O fad had faded, and today, even the neon-hued fruit flavors are more common in hospital cafeterias than anywhere else.
An exception is Utah, where Mormon cuisine still embraces Jell-O in its many forms. Utah and other parts of the heavily Mormon West are sometimes called the Jell-O Belt, since they consume twice as much Jello-O as the national average. At Mormon gatherings, it’s common to find Jell-O salads that feature tomatoes, cubed ham, shredded chicken, or canned tuna.