I have no ill will toward Jell-O. Like many spawn of the ’80s and ’90s, my own childhood jiggled and wobbled. The recipe on the back of the box was one of the first I learned on my own, and there were often jewel-colored saucers setting in our refrigerator if I was feeling sick. (I’m not sure if grape gelatin technically counts as a clear liquid, but my mom certainly thought so.) In my household Jell-O was a complete, sovereign dish unto itself.
Mars’s family, like many Utahns, takes a different approach. Jell-O is for salads. The presence of gelatin may in fact be implied; Mars’s Aunt Marilyn, one of the keepers of Grandma Ida’s recipe, refers to the dish simply as “Thanksgiving salad.” The Jell-O lurks silently, ready to catch outsiders unaware. In the spiral-bound booklet A Century of Mormon Cookery by Hermine B. Horman and Connie Fairbanks, the “salads” chapter contains no fewer than 18 recipes that call for gelatin—including, I regret to inform us all, one called Shrimp Salad Supreme that requires hard-cooked eggs, pimento cheese, a can of cocktail shrimp, whipped cream, and salad dressing, in addition to one cursed package of lemon Jell-O.
And so I feared the worst when Katie pulled out her carefully hand-written recipe card. What whimsical surprises might Grandma Ida have folded into this Jell-O? Shredded carrots? Grated cheddar? To my relief, the only additions to two boxes of raspberry gelatin were, congruously, frozen raspberries and, unnecessarily but inoffensively, additional sugar. The Jell-O would be layered between ribbons of cream-cheese-spiked whipped cream and graham cracker crumbs. It wasn’t a salad at all, I thought, but rather a dessert—a fortunate misnomer.
This I could work with. This sounded like a relative of a fruity panna cotta or soft-set posset, albeit one that had immigrated to the Intermountain West and shopped at Chico’s. As Katie emerged from the kitchen, I moved to take the casserole from her hands. Through the sides of the Pyrex dish I could see the distinct palindromic layers—graham crackers, cream, ruby Jell-O, cream, graham crackers. “This looks lovely,” I said truthfully. “I’ll put it right over here with the pies.”
Katie’s torso swiveled, the practiced motion of a mother protecting her infant from threatening hands. I might as well have poured soy sauce all over her prized family recipe. “It’s a salad,” she corrected. “It goes next to the turkey.”
Indeed that’s where it went, and Mars’s family members proceeded to pile it onto their plates, snuggled next to the Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes. As for me, I made sure to save room for a scoop to close out the meal, and most of the other guests followed suit. (It was particularly praised by friends from Mexico and Taiwan, locales which rival the great state of Utah in their respect for gelatin.)
To my surprise and delight, I found that Jell-O salad was the component my Thanksgiving dessert plate had been missing all along. The tart raspberries popped amid the rich and heavily spiced pies; the bouncy Jell-O offered a textural respite from the dense and custardy. I knew then it would always have a place on my Thanksgiving table. I’d argue it deserves a place on yours too—whether that’s next to the turkey or lined up with the other desserts.
is a former Bon Appétit editor. Starting in January she will be lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.