By SHANNON WATKINS
The word “congealed” in relation to anything involving food doesn’t exactly spark the appetite, at least not if you hear it after living long enough to have encountered the word elsewhere. This is usually in relation to blood at a crime scene or something equally appalling.
But if you grew up hearing it around the kitchen table, it sounds perfectly normal and even tasty, or at least it did in my home, where the words “congealed salad” were frequently spoken.
I’m sure in other parts of the world, people use the term “Jell-O salad,” which is both more accurate and less likely to lead to unpleasant visuals involving forensics. From purely anecdotal research I am led to believe that “congealed” is an adjective used only in the South; so God knows what somebody’s Midwestern in-laws think of when they come to visit for the holidays and hear they’re having “congealed salad” alongside dinner—probably wilted lettuce with limp carrot shreds and rancid dressing that was all left out overnight to get mushy. Well, I suppose that’s a good way to keep them from dropping in unannounced.
Speaking of having it alongside dinner, it’s notable that despite its usual sweetness, congealed salads tend to be served as side dishes with a meal, apart from whatever dessert is waiting. It’s also curious but true that I’ve been to many a dinner that had a congealed salad as a side and a dessert that was also Jell-O-based, which, along with the amount of sweet tea I consumed, should have left me in a sugar coma but thankfully didn’t.
Mississippi Delta native Julia Reed, a criminally underappreciated writer, has several books of essays. One, entitled “Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties” contains an essay called “Miss Congealiality” (isn’t that so cute you could squeal? I’m honestly a little upset that I didn’t think of it first.)
In it, Reed gives an extensive list of things that Delta folks consider fair game for putting in gelatin, and gives a history of it, starting in medieval England. Back in the day, you got gelatin by boiling calves’ feet or deer horn for several hours and skimming off the glutinous stuff that gathered on top of the water; after that you boiled it more and added things like egg whites and various flavoring substances, sweetened it, boiled it further, and strained it through flannel. After all that labor for one dish I assume you were more than happy to die of the plague. “Oh, goodness,” the person who found you would say. “I think she congealed.” Not that you’d care.
At any rate, when I heard the phrase “congealed salad” as a kid, it almost always meant a specific one my grandmother made, although in other neighborhood families, the same phrase meant a completely different but equally sweet recipe. Naturally, with a child’s unconscious egotism, I thought that the other ones were wrong and ours was right. You didn’t make congealed salad with peach or cherry or lemon Jell-O; you made it with lime Jell-O and you cut the pecans for it in perfect cross-sections, the way my grandmother did.
Congealed salads were gladly seen on our table for both holidays and regular workaday meals, although their cooling effect was, and is, especially welcome in the summer. It was only in recent years that I found out the one I grew up with had a proper name: Paradise Salad. I think I was possibly more amazed to hear that in my thirties than I was to find out around age 5 that my grandmother’s first name wasn’t “Grams” but Barbara. Frankly, I’m still a little surprised.
3 oz. lime Jell-O
1 small can crushed pineapple
½ c. mayonnaise
6 oz. cottage cheese
1 c. boiling water
½ cup chopped pecans
Dissolve Jell-O in water. Add other ingredients, stir well, and refrigerate until, well, congealed (a 9 x 13” glass dish was Grams’s favored choice, as I recall). Serve with whatever you like, though it goes especially well with ham or fried chicken.
As for the name, I suppose it falls under the broad definition of salad, and it’s definitely congealed, but is it paradise? If you didn’t have to boil the livestock yourself to make it, it’s close enough.