IT JUST WOULDN’T be Christmas without Jell-O.
Holiday traditions are built around this concoction of sweeteners, dyes, and stuff that hardens like amber to preserve the items that are lovingly placed in it.
The lunch ladies at St. Raphael’s Elementary School were masters of suspending the four food groups in Jell-O. Carrots were an odd and particular favorite—not traditionally sliced, but shredded in a frenzy. Flurries of carrot peelings, snowing in Jell-O. Now that I am an adult and have struggled myself with kitchen mysteries, I wonder how they managed to get those carrot peelings to stand on end as the Jell-O hardened, forever ethereal in a vertical dance of keratin. My pitiful attempts only result in a clotted mass of carrots. The lunch ladies remain the Queens of Jell-O.
There are secret and historic color combinations for additives and Jell-O that, I suspect, are written on the back of a recipe for hamburger rice casserole and handed down from matron to matron at Rosary Society meetings. The lunch ladies, with their intuitive sense of color and form, knew enough to put carrots in orange Jell-O, pears in lime. Never pears in orange. Never carrots in lime. Red Jell-O demanded fruit cocktail, with ghostly, albino grapes floating listlessly in ruddy space.
My children embrace bright blue, but traditionalists eschew this violent shade. It has yet to break through the glass Jell-O mold ceiling to be served at church suppers or on hospital dinner trays. And, by the way, what did pineapple ever do to be shunned by the Jell-O people, called out by name on the side of the carton, destined to never be added to molds in perpetuity throughout the universe?
The creation of a magnificent holiday gelatin salad is fraught with hazards. The colorful harvest you stir into it may simply float on the top and refuse to settle. You might attempt to physically force the fruit to sink by giving the peach chunks a good poke. However, if you are too forceful, or if you wait too long to make your attempt, this will cause a rupture in the space-time-Jell-O continuum which will riddle your dessert with crevices and cause your children to nod knowingly at one another over the beef stroganoff and discuss your culinary incompetence the next morning on the schoolbus.
Jell-O is good Christmas food. It’s about recovery, comfort, nurturing and the simple pleasures of home. Jell-O is not trying to impress anyone. It is eaten without pretense—the food of babies, of childhood, of Mom. We may dress up and go to work carrying briefcases, we may dine out at hoity-toity French restaurants, but underneath it all and back home in our jammies standing over the sink, we have all eaten Jell-O. It’s the gelatinous glue our tables have in common. It is not a food of solitude, it is a food of family. If you are eating Jell-O, someone is taking care of you.
And that’s my wish for you this season—that you have someone to make Jell-O for, and that you occasionally get a batch with mandarin oranges and miniature marshmallows whipped up just for you. May your gelatin set, your molds release, and your Cool Whip thaw in time for your friends, your family, and your holiday table.
This originally appeared as a family Christmas card. A later version was published in Minnesota Monthly.