IN THE 1950S, A FOOD trend swept the United States: the sweet salad. World War II had ended, and with it wartime rationing, but Americans’ penchant for canned goods persisted. The combination of the increased popularity of preserved foods and the overall postwar atmosphere of abundance led to a widespread love for dishes that were modern, decorative, and convenient. This included technicolor “salads” made from multiple processed ingredients, like powdered gelatin and canned fruit. Epitomizing this mix of social forces, in all its trembling, fruit-filled, jewel-hued glory, was the Jell-O mold. Consisting of a mix of sweet, and often savory, ingredients suspended in elaborate rings of wiggly instant gelatin, these creations shone from the pages of Betty Crocker and The Joy of Cooking books, and festooned the countertops of suburban America.
But love for gelatinous, creamy medleys did not originate in the 1950s. Americans had been enjoying sweet mixtures of grains and dairy, like rice pudding, for centuries. Many early recipes were delicacies, involving expensive nuts and exotic, hard-to-find fruits like pineapple, or labor-intensive processes like making gelatin at home. But the rise of industrial food production in the 1900s, including the popularizing of canning and instant foods like Jell-O, mainstreamed and democratized these unique dishes. They gained further popularity thanks to midcentury brands advocating “modern” convenience cooking, like Betty Crocker.
Since they’re affordable and don’t spoil easily, these sweet salads have long been heavy-hitters at family gatherings, funerals, and church potlucks. From ambrosia to Coca-Cola, from cookie to frog eye, they remain beloved fixtures of community life across the American South, Midwest, and Mountain West. Functioning as either a dessert or a sugary side dish, they’re an airy spoonful of nostalgia for many diners. While everything else may be uncertain, these seven salads affordably and reliably give comfort. After all, canned pineapple and whipped topping will always remain (shelf) stable and sweet.