Why Were There So Many Gelatin-Based Dishes in the 1950s and 60s?
Look through any of the most popular and trendy cookbooks of the 1950s and 1960s and you’ll encounter a disheartening trend, one that thankfully has faded into obscurity: dishes that were encased in savory molded gelatin or aspic. These are some of the most bizarre dishes that have ever been created, and we can’t imagine that they tasted particularly appetizing. What gives? Why were these dishes so popular?
Dishes encased in gelatin, which ranged from everything from a vegetable- and sugar-laden concoction called “Perfection Salad” (which was actually a pretty popular dish by the time the 50s rolled around) to one that had lamb chops submerged in it, didn’t actually go out of style until the 1970s, when Jell-O molds (occasionally called “gel cookery”) finally gave way to dishes that people would actually eat. But when they first gained popularity, there were in fact a few reasons why a home cook might have wanted to serve them.
One, in the early 1950s refrigerators were still quite expensive, and gelatin needs refrigeration in order to set. So in a way, preparing a Jell-O mold was something of a status symbol. Also, it’s worth noting that gelatin molds date back to the 1700s, when elaborate molds and gelatin (which was quite expensive) were seen as a way to showcase wealth, so this notion was nothing new.
Two, molds were so popular, and featured in so many cookbooks, that many home cooks simply accepted that they were a desirable thing to make. They also were relatively fun to prepare, and were an inexpensive way to make a main dish by using primarily canned goods and leftovers.
Three, postwar domesticity was largely wrapped up in modern technology and the efficiency, order, and cleanliness it offered. Gelatin molds were decidedly neat and tidy and mess-free, economical, and efficient. In being controlled yet elegant in their own way, gelatin molds were completely in tune with the era. (For more details along these lines, Serious Eats has a great history.)
So yes, Jell-O molds are a bizarre relic of a time long ago. But they were also completely of their era, and once you have an idea of the values and mores of that era it’s easy to see how they filled a niche.