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Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: The Southern affinity for “shiny, quivering” gelatin molds

The recent news that gelatin salads are making a big comeback left me feeling equal parts nostalgic and nauseous.

You see, here in the South, we were the last ones to finally, mercifully, stop mixing boiling water with a box of “fruit” flavored gelatin and adding weird crap like shredded cabbage, crushed pineapple and onion juice to make a quivering tower of …well, not exactly food.

Also, onion juice? How? Why? But mostly How?

A recent story on the retro chic popularity of gelatin salads by “Today” show reporter Heather Martin sent me to my vast collection of church cookbooks for a walk–really more of a sprint with my hand over my mouth–down molded gelatin memory lane.

If I’m being honest–a dumb expression now that I see it in print because is that opposed to my usual lying self?—I was particularly fond of the lime gelatin mold of my childhood, fairly bursting with suffocated shards of pineapple, mini marshmallows and jar cherries.

I say “suffocated” because the ingredients looked like they were trying desperately to get out of their shiny, quivering confines. Alas. It was not to be.

I’m sitting here surrounded by church and county fire department cookbooks missing spiral bindings, some with only two of the three rings and all covered with disturbing spatter patterns that would stump Dexter. I treasure them.

While the retro-chic aspect is precious, and entirely predictable because you know millennials, the new iterations lack a certain authenticity. They are TOO perfect. The beef and pea “leftovers” entry featured in the news story truly looked like art. Not something you’d hack off a hunk of at the circle meeting and smear Duke’s mayonnaise on top like God intended.

My vintage cookbook recipes were so associated with their creators a name had to be attached, as in “Jane’s Amazing V-8 and Lettuce Aspic Delight.” If you really wanted to stand out, you called your gelatin salad anything ending in “Delight.” One featured a chiffonade of chipped beef, diced frozen potatoes and “carrot rounds the size of nickels.” Oh, dear.

Another favorite back in the day was the rather astonishing tower of molded congealed shrimp salad which called for a can of condensed tomato soup, mayonnaise, cream cheese, the aforementioned “onion juice” and “two cans of mashed up cocktail shrimp.” Shout out to the stomachs that survived that one.

Towering, quivering gelatin salads were a staple at potlucks on the church grounds or sideboards at every funeral, including my grandfather’s when I was 10 years old. I chose to avoid the well-meaning condolences from the grownups and stare unblinking at the canned pears slowly, sweatily emerging from their orange incarceration as the day wore on.

Stuff like that never leaves you, am I right?

As Ms. Martin wrote in her excellent article, “There’s a pandemic related interest in home cooking and a return to the safety of our family roots, even if they’re a little disturbing.”

I’ve seen Vienna sausages and chopped green peppers star in a grape gelatin mold so, yeah, it takes a lot to impress me. And the modern-day mold makers have. Of course, all are famous on Instagram. Poor Jane. Her fame was so limited back in the ‘50s.

Although it wasn’t technically a gelatin mold, an ice mold made by a dear friend for a baby shower we were co-hosting was the most memorable. Always the creative type, she made a punch bowl ice ring that encased dozens of inch-long pink plastic babies she found at a craft store. Unfortunately, as the ring thawed, horrified guests found themselves staring at a pool of face-down babies floating on a pink sea. Kind of the opposite of the festive vibe we were going for.

And definitely not “delightful!”

Celia Rivenbark is a NYT-bestselling author and columnist. Write her at [email protected].

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