Molded Chef’s Salad

Not too long ago I acquired yet another pile of family recipes to add to my ever growing collection. As I flipped through the index cards and magazine clippings, I came across this one and my heart skipped a beat. An absolutely horrifying retro recipe was calling my name:

Molded Chef’s Salad.

My husband and I shared a good laugh and a new idea began to take shape. What if we made this and – GAG – tasted it. Thus, Molded Memories was born.

This recipe is undated, but my guess is it’s from the 1960’s. It’s a promo card, likely a magazine insert. The back of the card has another recipe that calls for Hellmann’s Best Foods Mayonnaise (how specific) so it was probably distributed by Hellmann’s Best.

Molded Chef’s Salad

  • 2 – 3 oz. packages of Lemon or Lime Jell-O
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 c. boiling water
  • 1 c. cold water
  • 3 T. vinegar
  • 3/4 c. thin cooked ham strips
  • 3/4 c. thin Swiss or American cheese strips
  • 1/4 c. sliced scallions or red onion
  • 1/2 green pepper, thin strips

Dissolve gelatin and salt in boiling water. Add cold water and vinegar. Chill until thickened. Fold in remaining ingredients. Pour into a 5-cup mold. Chill until firm, at least 6 hours. Unmold. Garnish, if desired. Makes 5 or 6 servings.

Easy enough.

I went with lime Jell-O because I read that lime was introduced in 1930 specifically to go with vegetable gelatin salads. Believe it or not, I have another molded ham salad recipe that calls for Miracle Whip, so I used that as a garnish. From start to finish, the whole thing took about 20-30 minutes. Not counting the six hours of setting time, obviously.

The Verdict

I’ve never been more nervous to try a historic dish than I was with this one. However, I’ve been surprised before so I was still hopeful that perhaps it might not be as disgusting as it sounds.

Nope, this “salad” is truly awful.

I could have done without the ham…and the cheese….and especially the onions. The lime-flavored green peppers were ok, but still unpleasant. The Jell-O itself had a hint of salt and vinegar, which meant I couldn’t even eat around the other stuff.

Still I soldiered on and wondered how it might taste with the Miracle Whip garnish. Turns out, it is actually possible to make this salad worse.

In the words of my husband:

“The flavor is offensive. I would rather eat canned Surstromming (a smelly fish) than another bite of this.”

A Bit of Historical Context

Rather than make unappetizing food simply to laugh at the previous generations’ tastes, I have a genuine desire to figure out why this particular recipe exists.

My grandmother was an excellent cook and she took great pride in her food. So why would someone with such high standards make something as repulsive as a molded ham salad? She must have either genuinely liked it or had a very good reason to keep not one, but TWO molded ham salad recipes in her files. Of course, there’s always the possibility that she just forgot to throw them away.

I do not have any definitive answers because I wasn’t there, but based on what I know about food history, post-war America and my grandmother, I have narrowed it down to three major factors:

  1. Frugality. Years of rationing, grocery stores with a much smaller variety of ingredients, and just plain old penny-pinching made it worthwhile to use every scrap and leftover these women had. Vegetables, produce and meats go bad and suspending them in gelatin really does preserve and extend their shelf-life.
  2. Experimental artistic expression. Mid-century women were expected to regularly entertain their husbands, neighbors and friends. Looking through old cookbooks you can see that these salads went way beyond just a simple Jell-O ring mold. They came in all shapes, sizes, colors and designs. They are, in many ways, edible decorations. Renaissance chefs had elaborate sugar sculptures, mid-century housewives had gelatin centerpieces.
  3. Technology and efficiency. Electric refrigerators made these molded recipes possible, and by the 50’s, many American families could finally afford one! Not all of the gelatin recipes I’ve seen would be considered “easy,” but for the most part all they require is preparing the gelatin with boiling water, adding ingredients then letting it set. Preparing a molded salad could save time and keep the kitchen tidy. At the time, a jell-O salad was far less involved and time-consuming than most of the other dishes on the table.

So, with some context perhaps we can better understand and appreciate the many bizarre molded salad recipes from the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. But that doesn’t mean we have to like them!

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