A Little Jiggle From Down South

Jelled Foods Are Old And New Again

1-2-3, three distinct layers created merely by blending and pouring.
1-2-3, three distinct layers created merely by blending and pouring. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; Page F01

If you announced to a Northerner and a Southerner that your salad had congealed, one would look at you with pity, and the other would know that dinner was ready.

Southerners realize that some might find jelled foods outdated, but they don't care one whit about what anyone else thinks of their customs. And besides, are they not with, or in fact way ahead of, the curve?

Molecular gastronomists, the new breed of chefs who think they suddenly discovered that cooking is chemistry, are obsessed with jellies (along with foams and anything that can be flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen). While these guys pat themselves on the back for discovering how to turn liquids into solids via seaweed extracts such as agar-agar and carrageenan, they might want to take a look at "Cotton Country Cooking," a 1972 book from Decatur, Ala., or any other Southern Junior League cookbook.

A certain breed of home cooks has employed this technique for a long time. Like the people who prepare them, jelled dishes are kinetic, hold hidden charms and do not suffer from being just a wee bit flashy.

As much as Southerners have embraced the use of gels, they didn't invent it any more than today's chefs have. Before refrigeration, savory jellies were used to preserve foods (think of the goop surrounding a canned ham).

But obtaining gelatin (actually the protein collagen) was time- and labor-intensive; it required boiling animal bones and hooves long enough to release their collagen, then simmering the liquid with egg whites and shells to clarify and degrease it. The resulting product was dried into sheets. The invention of powdered gelatin in the mid-19th century made things easier, but foods made with gelatin still tended to melt at room temperature, so maintaining them long enough to serve required resources available only to the rich. Jellies, like ice creams and sorbets, were therefore de rigueur on the finest European tables until the advent of refrigeration made them readily accessible to the hoi polloi.

According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," molds were used for flavored jellies in at least the 14th century and possibly earlier; by 1908, the Jell-O company offered free aluminum molds with purchases. Through the Depression and World War II, Jell-O molds were promoted as "elegant ways to fashion leftovers," according to Oxford. In the 1950s, the allure was that they required time and attention to prepare correctly; by the '60s, a food that required those things was on its way to becoming obsolete.

But not in the South, where jelled dishes, including the beloved tomato aspics and vegetable terrines, are still often mainstays of "ladies' luncheons" or first courses of multi-course suppers meant to impress. They are never served as dessert, despite whatever misplaced inclination the uninitiated may have to do so.

"They are meant to cool and refresh and slide down one's throat," writes Nathalie Dupree in "Southern Memories" (University of Georgia Press, 2004). "We love them."

The congealed salad often combines several Southern favorites: a carbonated soft drink, most often Coca-Cola (pronounced "co-CO-la"); canned fruit of some sort; a fruit-flavored Jell-O; pecans; perhaps some kind of shredded cheese. It's served on top of an iceberg lettuce leaf with a dressing, perhaps poppy seed, made with a base of cream cheese and mayonnaise, or just a dollop of Miracle-Whip. The Cherry Coke Salad recipe invariably bears the name of the latest person to take credit for a dish passed down through generations or gleaned from a book. Mrs. David E. Bowers pronounces her "Cotton Country" recipe "a sophisticated salad version of a popular childhood drink, cherry coke," and adds that it's "good with ham or turkey."

Oddly enough, these concoctions often turn out to be right in their very wrongness, managing somehow to strike a balance of sweet and savory, velvety meltiness and crunchiness. In the sweet department, wine jellies were often used as palate cleansers, particularly during the Victorian era. And anyone who grew up in the 1970s, as I did, knows that "there's always room for Jell-O."

Some of us remember Jell-O's 1-2-3 fondly. Introduced in 1969 and discontinued in 1996, the product came in strawberry and orange flavors and had to be made in a blender. It then separated on its own into three layers: regular Jell-O, a lighter, mousselike center and a foamy top layer. That the gratification was not instant made it that much more satisfying; we all ate 1-2-3 with the same kind of ritual individualism employed in the proper consumption of an Oreo.

In the spirit of "the more things change, the more they stay the same," I recently set out to resurrect some jelled dishes: a pretty green vegetable salad with red pepper sauce, a pleasant rosé wine gelee with grape relish, and a berry-rich update of 1-2-3.

(A word on gelatin to head vegetarians off at the pass. Gelatin is made from animal products, but vegetarian substitutes, such as agar-agar, exist.)

In whatever form, jelled treats warrant investigation by those who haven't tried them and reinvestigation by those who have forgotten.

Why? A molecular gastronomist might answer by discussing melting temperatures, but I find the explanation offered by afriend of mine acting as a taste-tester more succinct:

"1-2-3. . . . Yum!"

David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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