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The Mystery of the Molded Salad...

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All of my vintage cookbooks have several pages each dedicated to savory molded salads using aspic or gelatin and containing very strange casts of culinary characters. As an adult though, I've never been to an event where thes kind of salad was served. I'm actually a bit surprised that they haven't become popular again in recent years. Consider the following reasons that molded salads SHOULD HAVE made a comeback:

-The increasing availability of agar-agar means that we don't even have to use rendered animal body parts to make savory gelatinous salads. The vegetarian "Japanese gelatin" is one of the most accessible ways to bring molecular gastronomy techniques to the home kitchen but its appearance on food blogs and recipe sites has still been sparse.
-The current obsession retro foods and all things mid-century in general.
-An economic crisis. One of the reasons that savory molded salads were so popular was because it was a great way to use leftovers or to disguise foods that were somewhat past their prime.
-a prolonged and tearful scene featuring aspic in the hit movie "Julie and Julia."
-new trends in sweet savory combos (i.e. desserts with bacon, salted caramel, etc)

Have society's taste buds permanently moved on OR could it be, perhaps, that molded gelatin salads just weren't ever that good to begin with? This would be the case according to my battered copy of Peg Bracken's celebrated classic "I Hate to Cook Book" which was published in 1960, at the height of the molded salad craze. Her section on molded salads has the subtitle "What should you tell your children about molded salads?" She goes on to write that "you'll have to tell them that in spite of the vast numbers of molded salads made daily, not so many people enjoy them as the children might think..." and that "molded salads are best served in situations where there is little or no competition."

What do you guys think? Do you like molded salads? If so, why haven't they become trendy again? If not, why do you think they were so popular in the first place?

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  1. What exactly is a molded salad?

    4 Replies
    1. re: mymomisthebestcook

      A molded salad (also called jello salad) is one of those things that people make with gelatin (or sometimes aspic) and fruits and/or vegetables. Housewives would have an arsenal of salad molds in different shapes for different occastions (see ebay!) Normally they are associated with Mormons (I know because I grew up in Utah) but In the past they were really popular everywhere. Often they would have weird stuff suspended inside them (hotdogs, pretzels, marshmallows, nuts, etc.) I have heard talk that it was more of a regional thing but my Betty Crocker Picture cookbook (1950) has like 6 pages of recipes solely dedicated to them so this makes me think they must have been pretty popular everywhere...

      1. re: barcelonabites

        I associate them with church potlucks in general. Jello with an assortment of meats, vegetables and marshmallows. I classify them with the home cooking with convenience foods trend in general, popular in the 50s to 70s - all those ways of jazzing up cake mixes or noodles and sauce, using condensed soups for sauces and casseroles, Hamburger Helper and the like, that were really popular when prepackaged foods like this first became readily available.

        I think the main reason they haven't made much of a comeback is because they are pretty nasty in general. You have the taste combination of fake fruit jello, combined with sweet ingredients, like canned pineapple and marshmallows, contrasted with the salty smoky taste of things like hotdogs or spam, with some overcooked vegetables tossed in. The ingredients are predominately canned, rather than fresh. Then there's the generally slimy/squishy texture, contrasted with random crunch or firm things. Appearance wise - do a Google image search and tell me if you find them appetizing looking!

        I could see a Foodie comeback, if it went extra retro and went back to the original concept of aspic molds, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Use a home-made meat stock rather jello, and high quality ingredients in the mold, carefully chosen for their flavours and textures, and it could be pretty good.

        1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

          Here's some photos with hilarious comments from the Gallery of Regretabble food ... "Imagine you're hungover. Deeply hungover. Someone presents you with this - and shakes the plate so it wiggles. Frankly, it already looks like someone heaved into a mold and stuck the result in the fridge. But that's Gel-Cookery!"
          http://lileks.com/institute/gallery/k...

          Though, if thru the magic of molecular cooking you could get it to glow like this ... maybe it could appear at El Bulli
          http://lileks.com/institute/gallery/k...

          More regrettable photos ... one wonders why these became popular even in the 50's with photos like that .. well, Valium was gaining popularity ... maybe if you are stoned enough you look at these and go ... yum.
          http://lileks.com/institute/gallery/j...

          1. re: rworange

            i love lilek's gallery.

            >>>""""

            Garden Salad #2.

            Here the food seems trapped in a shiny force-field, the individual items looking with sad envy at the olives and tomatoes relaxing outside the hated Invisible Barrier. This dish takes a little more time, because it requires constant Simonizing prior to consumption. But that's Gel-Cookery!"""<<<<

    2. >>> I'm actually a bit surprised that they haven't become popular again in recent years

      You inspired me

      Challenge: Ideas for modernizing molded gelatin salads
      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/711133#

      >>> new trends in sweet savory combos (i.e. desserts with bacon, salted caramel, etc

      )

      My post could backfire.Someone might take the current food cliches and create the horror show of "Son of Molded Salads" ... a maple molded gelatin salad with bacon and sprinkled with lavandar sea salt

      1. I love home made tomato aspic, but won't touch those jello concoctions.

        1 Reply
        1. re: pikawicca

          My mother made what must be sort of a tomato-jello aspic-style salad. You use cherry Jello and replace the liquid with V-8 juice, add grated onions, grated carrots, chopped celery, shredded iceberg lettuce and baby shrimp. I think there's a little Worstershire sauce in it too. We still have it at Christmas -- it sort of takes the place of cranberry sauce, whcih none of us likes. It's actually very tasty.
          Other than that, I have never had a jello salad that did anything but gross me out.

        2. i have the molds, and the old cookbooks, but have never been crazy about jello -- though i like aspic (esp. around a pate); so i haven't made any.

          some of the old cookbooks have gorgeous creations, and some sound elegant in their food combinations. they don't all seem like they'd be "regrettable."

          1. Mmmmm, my mom's Jello mold - strawberry jello was allowed to cool but not set, then she mixed in canned crushed pineapple and cottage cheese, poured it into a mold and let it set. I was a family favorite at Thanksgiving and other festive dinners. And we're from the west coast, not Utah or the midwest!

            And another Jello salad story - a girlfriend of mine had a boyfriend from Iowa. In the mid-60's, we were all getting into serious food and wine, but he always wanted her to make green Jello with celery, like his mother used to make. For his birthday, she tastefully arranged about 6 whole celery stalks in a Pyrex dish, then covered the whole thing with lime Jello and let it set before presenting it to him with a candle in it. I don't think he ever asked for it again.

            1 Reply
            1. re: judybird

              i'll bet they didn't stay together either.

            2. You can thank the medieval French for the popularity of brightly colored molded salads. Six hundred years before your example of 1960, the French were creating vivid molded concoctions which make our marshmallow-carrot-lime jello holiday salad seem mild by comparison. When you think about what it took to create these dishes, in terms of time, expense and labor, it does make sense that they carry an aura of historical esteem. At one time - in their day - they really did exemplify "fine dining". Today, we can replicate this for less than a dollar and some hot water.