On a molded gelatin salad

Whenever I feel a bittersweet feeling of melancholy and nostalgia creep into my bones, I also start to think about all of the molded gelatin salads that I ate at innumerable potlucks held by the Lutheran ladies in the church of my youth. Although I wouldn’t blame Lutherans for inventing the molded jello salad, I would fault them for raising the recipe to high art, albeit “pop” art, populism in its most base form. Though the term “exotic” never enters the same sentence describing the nature of gelatin desserts, most cooks making a strangely shaped gelatin dessert thought they were bordering on the exotic, if not original, use of gelatin. Whenever I eat gelatin, I am always reminded of the bowls of red gelatin that came out in summer to celebrate friends, family and colleagues at picnics, reunions, and random get-togethers. I still love red gelatin, but I don’t want anything odd in it. I think there still exists a tendency on the part of some cooks to “jazz up” their recipes and presentations by adding other foods, fruit cocktail and little canned tangerines being among the most common. I have also see shrimp, tuna, cabbage, olives, anchovies, spam, celery, carrots and radishes floating suspended in green gelatin. There is something rather grotesque about seeing a shrimp suspended in green gelatin coming toward your mouth. Just because you can suspend different fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish in gelatin does not mean you should do it, necessarily. Gelatin is rather sweet, and it seems rather diabolical, if not unethical, to mix olives and Spam into a molded gelatin salad–and it’s not really salad either. I’ve seen people make some rather entertaining desserts constructed of gelatin cubes and whipped cream, but this a far cry from celery, carrots and cabbage in gelatin. I often wonder if the creators of such monstrosities ever eat their own potential fiascoes. Gelatin as a food is problematic for lots of reasons, not the least of which is its wiggly nature. Being transparent doesn’t help because unwary cooks will always fall into the trap of trying to put something interesting into the gelatin for the unwary consumer to look at. Just because you can do something does not necessarily mean you should. Gelatin cut into cubes, stacked in a decorative glass, and topped with a little whipped cream, though not very daring, is an acceptable dessert. Gelatin forced into strange molds of fish, dogs, geometric shapes, and rings is not. Is there a creepier food out there than a yellow gelatin molded fish with canned mandarin oranges and tiny salad shrimps suspended in it? And it’s been garnished with celery and parsley by some adventurous and imaginative cook who scammed the recipe out of that one church cookbook her cousin Marge gave her. Or a large five-pointed star of molded red gelatin in which someone has suspended chopped olives, fruit cocktail, and shredded carrots? Perhaps the only thing weirder than that is seeing a ring of orange gelatin with little bits of stuff floating in it which you cannot identify at all. I’ve eaten a lot of weird things, but between the slimy giggle factor and its unidentified contents, a strange molded gelatin salad is not my idea of good eats, but I say this not because I hate gelatin, but because as a food it has been abused by creative cooks anxious to impress the in-laws with some wildly exotic combination of shredded Spam and horseradish, which when suspended in gelatin in the company of white rice might be considered criminal behavior. Really, don’t make me cry. Just give me a bowl of red gelatin with nothing weird in it, and I will be a happy camper–end of story.