Before the anticipation of who would get the choicest, crispiest piece of turkey skin or the angst over whether you really could handle a second piece of pie, there was one suspenseful moment around the Thanksgiving tables of our youth: Would the Jell-O come out of the mold intact?
Two households, two eras, but one very American tradition. We each grew up with mothers who proudly placed the glistening, jiggly stuff on the holiday table.
Reminiscences about those creations during a staff meeting a few months ago prompted a little competition. Egged on by our Food section colleagues, we decided to engage in a friendly Jell-O showdown. (We will pause for your Jell-O wrestling joke and pretend that you are the first one to make it.)
There would be no winner, just full stomachs, though that didn't prevent Becky from not-so-subtly polling the tasters to see whether hers was their favorite.
On the recipe card and on the plate, these two creations differ substantially.
Becky's mold, whose recipe originated in a community cookbook owned by her grandmother, starts with two cans of cranberry sauce — the ridges of which are sadly mashed out in the process of making the mold — and strawberry Jell-O. Mix-ins include chopped apple and walnuts. Her mom makes it with crushed pineapple. But after Becky bought rings instead one year and learned that her husband's uncle was not a pineapple fan at all, out it went for good.
For Jane's recipe, provenance unknown, a box of lemon Jell-O is dissolved into apple cider, turning the liquid a nice harvest gold. Grated apple (peel included) and diced celery create festive red and green specks. Jane's Midwestern mom, taxed with making holiday dinners for her family of six plus guests, often chilled the stuff in a ring mold. But sometimes, she simply let it jell in a baking pan, then carved out squares and set them on salad plates atop an iceberg lettuce leaf, adorned with a dollop of mayonnaise.
Samples of each mold were exchanged. The result: Let's just say a mix of politeness and family pride prompted both our unwillingness to savage the competition and our personal preference for our own gelatin. It was a bitter disappointment to our co-workers, some of whom clearly had been angling for a smackdown all along. We took the high road.
Mostly. There were just a few little things. Becky said she found the celery bits in Jane's Jell-O off-putting. Jane detected a tinny flavor in Becky's that she attributed to the canned — canned! — cranberries.
Quickly regaining graciousness, Becky conceded she'd been contemplating a conversion to from-scratch cranberry sauce. And Jane allowed as how Becky's walnuts had been such a tasty touch, she might consider adding them to her family recipe.
Maybe those are tweaks for next year. Or never. Some traditions are best left largely intact — just like a perfectly turned-out Jell-O mold.