In the 1950s in North America, "salad" was a loose term. Yes, it could mean lettuce: usually a wedge of iceberg lettuce, crisp and cool and without flavour, smothered with store-bought Thousand Island dressing (in the world I grew up in, dressings were always store-bought).
So yes, that was something that we might almost recognize today as a salad—though we'd recognize it with a strong sense of superiority, we with our arugula and mache, our mini-greens.
But the Lime Jello Salad? That's a horse of a different colour—lime green, in fact. Eileen, my mother, made it for special occasions, though she certainly didn't invent it. It was in the Zeitgeist. Over the years of its popularity it took different forms, with cooks improving on the original recipe, sometimes disastrously, though the original was itself pretty disastrous.
The Lime Jello Salad was not something to throw together at the last minute. Its basic building block was lime Jello. You know Jello, don't you? Gelatin powder, sugar, and artificial flavouring. On its own, Jello was often served as bright-coloured bouncy dessert cubes, with a blob of "whipped cream" on top. If there are places where this is still being served, please don't tell me.
But that was Jello as dessert. To make it into a "salad" you had to put a little savoury into it. So as you stirred in the second cup of water to it you also added mayonnaise (or, more likely in those days, Miracle Whip salad dressing, certainly cheaper than that wicked foreign, hard-to-spell mayonnaise).
Anyway: Jello, not yet set. Mayonnaise mixed in. The next ingredient was cottage cheese. Large curd or small, it was your choice. You mixed it right in to the still-liquid Jello.
Then came crushed pineapple—always canned because, as everyone knows, fresh pineapple's bromelain keeps gelatine from setting.
And chopped nuts. Pecans were best, but unless you lived in the South and had your own tree, pecans were pricey, so you added them only for very special occasions, like Thanksgiving.
You stirred up all of this and poured it into a baking dish (like an 8x8 Pyrex dish) and refrigerated it until it was firm.
To serve, you cut the Lime Jello Salad into large-ish squares, lifted them out with a spatula, and placed each square on a little bed of shredded iceberg lettuce, topping the whole thing with a dollop of mayonnaise or, of course, Miracle Whip.
The small plate holding this was placed to the upper left of the main plate. No separate courses in those days. You ate your Jello salad along with your turkey or roast beef.
As cooks sought to make this their own, some merged it with the "perfection salad", which was a different Jello salad with grated carrot (and sometimes celery) and crushed pineapple, maybe with nuts. The Jello for that salad was lemon, not lime. Made a huge difference. So sometimes extra nutrition was added to the Lime Jello Salad in the form of grated carrot, but that wasn't in the original recipe as I remember it.
It is virtually unrecognizable today as even edible, let alone nutritious. Certainly I won't be making it (I don't even know where to look in the supermarket for packets of Jello). And yet I can still taste the way the mayo made the base of lime Jello creamy and tangy, while the little toothsome lumps of cottage cheese contrasted with the sweet chunks of pineapple. I don't want this, but my memory of it is nothing but sweet: elegant pale green squares broadcasting the specialness of a meal.
Food blog: http://fastandfearlesscooking.blogspot.ca