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Jiggle all the way: We tried 4 retro holiday gelatin salads

Have a holly, wobbly Christmas.
It's the most … wobbliest time … of the year.
It's the most … wobbliest time … of the year.Heather Martin

It's the season for hustle-bustle, and my mind turns to making sure I carve out time to do things I find especially joyous and comforting. Some people get into the spirit by throwing holiday parties, crafting gifts or caroling. Me? I troll for hideous vintage recipes on the internet. I could pore over technicolor photos and shocking combinations of ingredients for hours — tuna pizza in circles of bright red and brown, a fluted glass of chilled beef broth and lemon, and my everlasting favorites: the towering kaleidoscopes of molded gelatin salads.

There’s always room for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.Heather Martin

The height of achievement in questionable salads was the 1950s and '60s, when postwar exuberance and scientific innovation led to inexpensive convenience foods, a smorgasbord of artificial colors and flavors and year-round produce. With modern tastes, they seem either quaint or horrifying, but what a delight they must have been after years of rationing, and what a big help to women suddenly both working and cooking in unairconditioned kitchens. I grew up with these "salads," making regular appearances in our holiday spreads. They are my earliest cooking memories — grinding pecans for my grandmother or fussing over the lime-and-cottage-cheese ring to help her get it on the plate in one piece. I didn't love them, but I did love her, and I find myself wishing for them to come back into prominence, bringing those irreplaceable kitchen experiences with them. The problem is, they're terrible. Are any of them salvageable? I've got hundreds of them filed away, shared by friends, and in my personal community cookbook collection, so I picked out a few iconic candidates to try.

Red Hot Salad

It's a cute name, isn't it? "Probably has cinnamon added to bright red gelatin," I thought to myself, when I was still innocent of the level of depravity hiding in the 1996 St. Anne's Guild cookbook, "We Gather Together," from Morris Press. While I’m sure most of the recipes in this collection are wholesome home cooking at its best, I regret to inform you that this obvious demonic infiltrator contains actual Red Hots candy dissolved in lemon gelatin. That layer is then iced with a heretical blend of cream cheese, mayonnaise, celery, chopped pecans and applesauce.

Red Hot Salad recipe.Courtesy Annie Bell

It was important to me to put these examples of American culinary ingenuity in their best light, so I went the extra mile and unmolded and stacked this one for more attractive serving and portraiture. The dressing layer is goopy and hard to work with. When I couldn't put it off any longer, I took a bite. It's very difficult to describe this flavor, bless its heart. It’s mostly about the mayo, but the spicy cinnamon candy certainly attempts to break through. Let's just say that if Red Hots ever makes a special edition tartar sauce, I'm going to pass.

Red Hot Salad: Straight from the kitchen of the devil himself.Heather Martin

Ring-Around-the-Tuna Salad

This quivering poltergeist is from a true Gothic horror literature classic, the 1963 "Joys of Jell-O" cookbook from General Foods Kitchens. It contains lime gelatin, cider vinegar, grated onion, celery, cucumber, green olives, pimento and, yes, a whole can of tuna.

Ring-Around-the-Tuna Salad recipe.Heather Martin

It's important to chill the vinegar-laden lime gelatin until very thick before adding the mix-ins, or they'll sink to the bottom in sodden resignation. Acids like vinegar and citrus slow gelling but shouldn't stop it. Even though I chilled this one overnight and took great care in unmolding, it still splattered onto the platter like Slimer escaping the Ghostbusters. I considered trying to remake it, but there was one salvageable slice, and after tasting it, I decided this photograph is the perfect visual representation of the flavor. It is an absolute horror show.

Ring Around the Tuna: Disturbing themes, gratuitous tuna. Parental discretion is advised.Heather Martin

The cucumber and celery flavors infuse the whole dish and really put the lime off-kilter. Somehow, the olives have given up the ghost and have little essence left. I think I'm glad. And the tuna — holy mackerel! It seeps into the gelatin nearby, making foul, fishy flavor cocoons around each flake. Adding insult to injury, everything has absorbed the green food dye. The cucumbers, celery and olives are now nuclear green, the pimento is brownish green, and the tuna is, most regrettably, pinky-green.

This psychopath of a recipe gleefully notes it serves four as an entrée. Don’t answer the call. It’s coming from inside the house.

Cranberry Candles Salad

This incendiary dish comes courtesy of a 1960s Hellman’s Mayonnaise magazine advertisement. It's an outrageous concept and looks revolting, so naturally, I've wanted to make it for years. The "crandles" contain cranberry sauce melted with your choice of Jell-O, then chilled and whipped with mayo until fluffy. Next, you add the reserved whole cranberries, chopped nuts and diced apple or orange, and mold.

Cranberry Candles Salad recipe.Heather Martin

I could tell pretty quickly that this recipe wasn’t going to set up properly, perhaps because the composition of canned cranberry sauce has changed in the last 50+ years. I quickly dissolved an extra packet of unflavored gelatin in a little boiling water and whipped it in. I wanted a variety of sizes for my centerpiece, so I used several cups and containers prepped with parchment and nonstick spray. Partially freezing helped get them out in one piece. Once they're unmolded, you put birthday candles in them and light them on fire. I had trouble getting good photos, because I could hear the Jell-O sizzling and began giggling uncontrollably.

Hellman’s Cranberry Candles served as they are meant to be: on fire.Heather Martin

After extinguishing and regaining my composure, I sliced one up and gave it a try. With the whipped texture and sunny fresh fruit, it's a cheerfully weird and springy experience, like eating SpongeBob SquarePants. It is awful, but far superior to the previous two. It would be improved by more nuts and fruit to balance the mouthfeel. If you decide to inflict this one on your guests, freeze it solid. It's easier, slices just fine, cuts down on the prominence of the mayo, and makes the texture less SpongeBob-y. Don't forget to garnish for that extra special presentation! The recipe suggests, you guessed it, more mayo.

Fluffy Orange Salad

This one is from "Talk About Good," a 1975 Methodist Church cookbook from Cookbook Publishers. There are a lot of recipes available online with a similar name, but most of them appear to contain gelatin, while this one, unlike all the others in this review, does not. It also isn’t as fluffy as those other recipes. In fact, it’s downright soupy. Plus, it's more peach than orange and has more peaches than oranges.

Fluffy Orange Salad recipe.Heather Martin

Let’s start over.

Soupy Peach Salad strikes me as extravagant for the time, containing three ounces of cream cheese, five ounces of pimento cheese, mini marshmallows and three cans of out-of-season fruits: peaches, mandarin oranges and pineapple. You mix all of that, then whip a cup of heavy cream and fold it in. It says chill overnight, so the flavors can meld, I guess? This is a critical error. It falls and … melds.

The sharp saltiness of the pimento cheese really heightens the tang of the cream cheese, and thanks to the whipped cream, the mini-mallows add a layer of slime. Together, brothers in arms, they go to war with the fruit clans. Team Fruit wins, but it takes heavy casualties in a Pyrrhic victory. It’s unhealthy, unappetizing, uneconomical, unfluffy and unorange. All is lost.

Fluffy Orange Salad should be called Soupy Peach Salad.Heather Martin

If you feel you can’t rest until you try it, save yourself trouble and expense by just topping a bowl of canned fruit with Reddi-wip and Mayochup.* Planning to bring something to a holiday potluck to ensure you’re never invited again? Opt for this one.

*Do not do this under any circumstances.

The verdict

So which one should you make, if you're looking to rekindle a wobbly Yuletide tradition? The crandles were the most work, but also the most fun. If you replaced the mayo with nondairy whipped topping, they would be marginally edible. It's difficult to get them to work correctly using various and sundry molds, so practice beforehand. If your bizarre, flaming centerpiece turns into a jiggly mess that even freezing won't fix, take heart: It will still be the most hilarious highlight of Christmas dinner ever.

I decided to devise an updated but still very gelatin recipe to honor my grandmother’s role in my family's holiday traditions. It's cranberry layered over cream cheese and almond on a bed of gingersnaps. I hope it blesses some of you with treasured memories — hold the mayo.