It happened many times during our first years of marriage. Living four hours away from family, whenever my husband and I made the trip back home, my mother-in-law would call and ask what we wanted to eat.

“Make pear salad,” my husband would ask, looking back at me with a glint in his eye.

If you aren’t aware, pear salad arrives on a leaf of just-for-show lettuce, and consists of a whole half-canned pear, its cored center ideal for a generous dollop of mayonnaise, a sprinkling of shredded (mild) cheddar, and (for a special occasion) a maraschino cherry. It may perch on its own plate—a place of honor—or instead appear gathered with its brethren on a repurposed deviled egg tray. It’s a salad because it’s cold, because of the mayo, because it’s part of The Meal.

I didn’t get it. I’d never had pear salad until I married into the Ables family, who genuinely are incredible hosts and cooks. But this concoction baffled me. Just . . . mayonnaise? On a pear? With cheese?

“You gonna eat that?” my husband would stage whisper to me at the table. I’d just slide my plate over, never meeting his eyes. There were too many other good things for me to enjoy anyway.

I delight in bringing up pear salad in conversation; it’s entertainingly polarizing and unifying. Some adore the flavor combination. Some recoil, never think of it! Talk inevitably turns to food memories, those nostalgic tastes we treasure even if—or maybe because—they are so strange and specific, weird and retro. Family food traditions are mysterious pathways to navigate, often shrouded in cream-of-something soups, Cool Whip, and/or mayonnaise.

If you know, you know. I’ve heard tales told of jalop (look it up), of pickles smothered in cream cheese and wrapped in salami, of Mountain Dew or Cherry Coke—not as a beverage but as an essential ingredient, of crab mixed with yogurt and topped with grapefruit slices, of pickled peaches, of celery or cheese in places they didn’t rightfully belong. We shudder with disgust maybe, but then . . . what we wouldn’t give to have another meal with that someone, with those people, at that table. Once more. The food makes that almost possible.

“It wouldn’t be the same without the pineapple casserole, the whatever it is that’s always a part of our holiday meals. Because this kind of food is a link, a connection to our history.”

 

And so here we are. It’s the holiday season, the time of celebration and feasting. Not the Williams Sonoma or Bon Appétit variety: there’s not a Martha or Contessa in sight. I write instead in tribute of the good old-fashioned standbys with their (maybe) terrifying ingredients and delicious nostalgia. There Will Be Jell-O.

For hark, I bring you glad tidings (or fair warning) of congealed salads, casseroles, entire sticks of butter, and crumbled Ritz Crackers. And without fail, nestled alongside the fried turkey and spiral cut ham is The Green Stuff.

“What’s that?” my husband asked at a family gathering Up North with me for the first time.

My mother’s eyes shone with delight as she plopped a horrifying pastel goop on his plate from a Pyrex bowl: “Dream salad! You’re going to love it. It wouldn’t be Christmas without a bowl of this!”

All of us kids called it Nightmare Salad, a deceiving pillow of pudding folded into Cool Whip and studded with walnuts, pineapple tidbits, and mini marshmallows. As a child, I was down with the ’mallows, but the surprise squeak of fruit or crunch of a nut? Too much texture roulette for me. My husband dutifully scraped his plate clean, declaring it delicious.

Then again, the man will eat anything . . . except maybe potato candy, another family favorite consisting of a paste of 10X sugar and maybe a tablespoon of mashed potato that’s rolled flat, spread with peanut butter, then sliced into pinwheels.

But before you write me off as a food snob or just an ungrateful brat, hear me out: my mom’s right. It wouldn’t be the same without the dream salad, the pineapple casserole, the giblet gravy . . . the whatever it is that’s always a part of our holiday meals. Because this kind of food is a link, a connection to our history.

Illustration by Karen Schipper

I find myself in an Internet spiral of “research,” discovering that both potato candy and congealed salads are rooted in the 1930s, the age of home refrigeration and the Depression. I mean, did you know that Jell-O was invented by the same man who invented the steam locomotive? And before that, if you wanted a dessert that would jiggle, you’d have to boil horse hooves for hours? That molded desserts and aspics were only for the very wealthy because they were such a bear to create and stunk to high heaven? Jell-O brought high-class food to the masses.

We owe a lot of our traditional family sides and potluck staples to gelatin, it seems. When Jell-O first hit the market, salesmen used recipe books to inspire cooks who could now keep fresh food cold for the first time in their home kitchens. Now they could bring special dishes to their tables and show love to their families in new, inventive ways.

We’re still telling the same story today in the form of casseroles and molds and church cookbook recipes. Serving something special, with love.

Because it tastes like memories—which is more than comforting, it knits us together and reminds us of who we are and where we came from. One bite, and we’re back in our grandmother’s kitchen again. It may not be magazine worthy, but it’s not supposed to be anyway.

So gather round with ye aspics and canned fried onions. Not for the asparagus casserole, the pickled herring, the swamp cabbage, or the Snickers salad. Instead, gather for the people, for the sake of the gathering itself. For ’tis the season for togetherness. The ingredients themselves may all be shelf stable, or an inside joke, but the time together is fleeting and meant to be savored. This season, as you sidle up to the buffet, I pray your whipped cream be “a dairy alternative” and all your “salads” wobble.

We can save the lettuce for the New Year.