I tried vintage recipes from a ’50s cookbook and I see why Jell-O salads aren’t popular anymore

I made three vintage recipes from ‘The Joy of Cooking.’ Courtesy of Coren Feldman
  • I tried making three vintage dishes from “The Joy of Cooking” and invited some friends over to try them.
  • Food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson recommended a menu of rumaki, tomato aspic, and a fruity Jell-O salad.
  • The rumaki was everyone’s favourite, and one taste tester didn’t mind the tomato aspic.
  • The Golden Glow Jell-O, however, did not go over well.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As part of Insider’s taste test series, I’ve tried frozen French fries, chocolate chip cookie recipes, and non-dairy ice cream. But nothing prepared me for this.

Since I’ve written about popular foods throughout history and unusual vintage recipes before, I thought it would be fun to try making some of them myself to see if Jell-O salads should make a comeback or if there’s a reason they went out of style.

I consulted food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson to ask about which cookbook to use and how to plan my menu. I then invited some brave friends over for a ’50s-themed luncheon to sample my creations.

A few disclaimers:

  • I don’t eat pork, so I used an off-brand Jell-O called Jell that did not contain collagen from pigs. The brand name “Jell-O” is used colloquially in this article to refer to gelatinous powder and foods, the way “Kleenex” is often used to refer to tissues.
  • I also substituted a beef “facon” in place of pork bacon.
  • I was unable to find gelatin molds in any of the three stores I looked in – perhaps a consequence of the waning popularity of recipes like this – so I used some plastic containers instead.

Other than that, I stayed true to the recipes. Keep reading to see what we thought.

Before I started cooking, I consulted food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson for some context and much-needed advice.

‘The Joy of Cooking’ by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rambauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

Johnson recommended that I make recipes from “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rambauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. It’s a wide-ranging cookbook originally published in 1931 that was named one of the most important and influential books of the 20th century by the New York Public Library.

For the menu, she advised that my taste test should start with an appetizer of rumaki: a Japanese-inspired dish consisting of water chestnuts wrapped in bacon.

Some of the ingredients in rumaki. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

“Post-war, Polynesian food was really kind of a thing, which was basically ham or Spam with pineapple on it,” she said. “Vintage food has a tendency to take really delicious foreign cuisine and Americanize the heck out of them until they’re practically unrecognizable and bland.”

To round out the menu, Johnson said that any sampling of vintage foods must include both a savoury and a sweet Jell-O dish.

An assortment of the ingredients for tomato aspic. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

For a savoury Jell-O, Johnson recommended making a tomato aspic.

“I feel like you need to find a tomato aspic recipe and make it to confront the fears of savoury Jell-O, to see if they’re justified,” she said. “Modern American palates have changed to dislike savoury gelatin, but that was not always the case. Probably until the 1960s, savoury gelatinous dishes were a thing.”

For the sweet Jell-O, I chose a recipe from the cookbook’s gelatin fruit salad section called “Golden Glow.”

The ‘Golden Glow’ Jell-O salad ingredients. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

The recipe called for lemon-flavored gelatin, a can of crushed pineapple… and shredded carrots.

Why were Jell-O dishes so popular back in the day? Johnson says it was all about ease.

A vintage Jell-O advertisement. Don O’Brien/Flickr

“In the 1950s, there were a lot of people cooking who didn’t really like cooking,” she said. “The convenience of gelatin salads definitely had something to do with it. They’re colourful, it’s super easy, you don’t have to bake. But there’s also this residual holdover from the turn of the century where moulded gelatin was fancy and dainty and considered good, easily digestible food for children and women and sick people.”

When I expressed apprehension about recipes like tomato aspic, she advised me to keep an open mind.

“I try not to be judgy about food traditions of the past,” she said. “I’m sure we eat things now that will horrify people in the future. You have to think about it in context. It’s a solid Bloody Mary, if you think about it.”

The tomato aspic was the most labour-intensive of the recipes.

The tomato aspic before it became gelatinous. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

The first step was to make what is essentially a homemade tomato soup with tomato juice, tomato puree, onion, celery, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, sugar, and herbs and spices and let it simmer for 30 minutes.

Once the tomato mixture was ready, I followed the cookbook’s instructions to strain out the vegetables, add two packets of my unflavored Jell-O substitute, sprinkle in some diced bell peppers, and let it chill in the fridge until my guests arrived.

While the tomato mixture was simmering, I started on the Golden Glow fruit salad.

Adding Jell powder to boiled pineapple juice. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

As the cookbook instructed, I drained the juice from a can of crushed pineapple and brought it to a boil, then added a packet of lemon Jell-O. When it began to thicken, I added two cups of shredded carrots and put it in the fridge to solidify.

I recruited a brave group of volunteers to aid me in this taste test.

Top row, left to right: Lauren and Hannah. Bottom row left to right: me and Isabella. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

The rumaki would serve as an appetizer, the tomato aspic would be the main course, and we would end with the Golden Glow Jell-O salad.

We put on a ’50s and ’60s Spotify playlist to set the mood.

When my guests arrived, I had them help assemble the rumaki.

Bacon-wrapped chestnuts, also known as rumaki. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

The whole water chestnuts had been marinating in soy sauce, ginger, and brown sugar all morning before we wrapped “facon” strips around them, secured with toothpicks. We then broiled everything for 10 minutes.

While the recipe did call for chicken livers, Rombauer writes that “You can also make these using whole water chestnuts in place of the liver,” which I opted to do.

Everybody liked the rumaki.

Isabella tries rumaki. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

“I think this is a dish where the balance of texture is really what makes it,” said Hannah. “You have the crunchier water chestnut that adds a bit of a tactile experience to the bacon, which is chewy and a little bit salty, whereas the water chestnut is basically water and allows it to soak in some of that flavour while maintaining a crunch.”

“It kind of melts in your mouth, and as Hannah said, with the crunch it’s really tasty,” Isabella said.

The crunchy, smooth water chestnut and the crispy beef bacon made for a winning combination.

Taking a bite of rumaki. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

Lauren also appreciated the texture and said that she didn’t really notice the difference between the “facon” and regular bacon.

“Of course, you can’t really go wrong with bacon, so any vegetable you pack in there would probably taste really good.” she said. “I think it’s a perfect appetizer. I would definitely do this for a dinner party.”

Next up was the tomato aspic.

A close-up shot of the tomato aspic. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

The tomato mixture congealed enough to be wiggly, but it fell apart pretty easily. It probably could have used some more time in the fridge, which is my fault. I would not have been a good ’50s housewife.

With our spoons at the ready, we scooped up some wobbly tomato Jell-O and gave it a try.

Digging in to tomato Jell-O. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

We were most apprehensive about this savoury aspic – but also curious about how the texture would match the taste.

“Because Jell-O is a dessert dish, I’m so curious to see how it’s going to taste with actual savoury spices and things like that,” Lauren said.

It reminded most of us of a kind of congealed ketchup.

It wasn’t great. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

The following is a transcript of the moments after our first bites of tomato aspic.

Lauren: It reminds me of the sauce out of a Chef Boyardee can. So it’s not really that bad for me since I’m used to it and like tomatoes. The spice is a lot. It’s overpowering. But if I were sick, I might eat it.

Hannah: I think this is a little vodka short of a Bloody Mary Jell-O shot. In fact, do you have any vodka?

Isabella: It tastes like ketchup. It tastes worse than purple ketchup. Isabella has left the chat.

Talia: It’s not quite as hard as Jell-O, but it tastes like it’s ketchup that’s been sitting out for like, a day. It’s definitely a little too gooey for comfort.

Hannah: This is the kind of thing they’d serve on an aeroplane.

Lauren: I bet if it were warm though it would go well over a meatloaf.

Finally, it came time for our Golden Glow dessert.

The Golden Glow salad. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

The fruity Jell-O salad did a better job of congealing than the tomato aspic. It maintained its loaf-like shape when we moved it to a plate, with bits of crushed pineapple and carrot floating evenly throughout. We agreed that the colours were pleasant and that the presentation made this look somewhat appealing.

We thought this fruity dessert would be better than the tomato aspic. We thought wrong.

Reacting after a bite of Golden Glow. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

Personally, I had to spit this one out. The flavour of the gelatinous crushed pineapple and carrot combination really did not sit well with me. The canned pineapple also left me with a metallic aftertaste.

“That was maybe the worst thing I’ve ever eaten,” Lauren said.

Lauren reacts after trying the Golden Glow. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

Not everyone hated it, though. Hannah was the most partial to the salad out of the group, and even went for a second helping to prove it.

“There’s nothing objectionable about lemon Jell-O, there’s nothing objectionable about crushed pineapple, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with carrots, I love carrots,” she said. “I think it was the combination that was not quite as cohesive as I was expecting. It’s not that bad, it just tastes like baby food.”

We all agreed that the rumaki was the best dish out of the three and ate the rest of it as a palate cleanser. Guess there’s a reason Jell-O desserts went out of style.

Our vintage three-course meal. Courtesy of Coren Feldman

“The Joy of Cooking” is an extensive cookbook that contains thousands of classic recipes (Johnson swears by its pancake recipe and says she makes it about once a week). I’m looking forward to seeing what else it has to offer. But I’m definitely flipping past the gelatin fruit salad section next time.