There are recipes we make at Thanksgiving that we don’t make any other time of year. Admit it. How often do you make stuffing? Or cranberries? Or The Famous Holiday Cheese Salad? What? No Famous Holiday Cheese Salad? Alas, I am not making The Famous Holiday Cheese Salad this year. You know what I’m talking about. Yours may not be the same recipe, and perhaps it has marshmallows in it, or mayonnaise and coconut, or whatever family tradition horror it may be. But it’s nostalgic. And most of the holiday salads contain that one, secret ingredient: Jello.
Mom and dad hailed from rural Kansas, and moved to Southern California in the mid 1960’s to raise their family and live the California dream. Think suburbs, aerospace-fueled economy, when the hills still smelled like butterscotch sagebrush and creeks like Matilija still ran in the wild, and little girls rode their bikes down the street without sidewalks and ran over purple blooms falling from jacaranda trees.
Before the health kick and wheat germ episodes of the mid 1970s, meals in our house were highly influenced by the small town, 1950s menus of my parent’s childhoods. But even after mom began frequenting Lassen’s Health Food Store and bringing home keefer milk, two holiday salads made their place at the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables. One my father was prone to like (marshmallows, chopped cranberries, whipping cream extravaganza), and one I always loved: The Famous Holiday Cheese Salad. Key ingredients being canned pineapple, gelatin, whipping cream, grated cheddar cheese, lemon juice and sugar. Stop making that face. It’s good stuff. And when cooking it, you must refrigerate until it congeals. I love that word.
When I began having Thanksgivings in college, away from my family, and then afterwards here in Portland, I continued the tradition and always made the requisite salad. About ten years ago, I had a great Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving for orphans.” About 12 of us not celebrating with our families got together at our old farmhouse in Sellwood, and each brought food and wine, and we had a great time. But I noticed no one really ate The Famous Holiday Cheese Salad. Why would that be?
Finally I realized a few years later, when AdRi gently told me she didn’t really like it, that it wasn’t the star of the Thanksgiving menu. Not everyone likes pineapple and cheddar cheese and whipping cream congealed in lemon jello (gasp!). Since that time, I’ve continued to make it, because I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without it. No one in my family makes it anymore. I told my mom last year that I was making it, and she said she hadn’t made it for years. My brother (Hi Ja’AmLo!) scoffs at the sugar-loaded mention of it. I wonder if my sister makes it, but she doesn’t live in this country anymore, thus, she doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so I doubt it. But I know that if I made it and my dad was around, he would so eat it. I’m sorry, but some things you can’t get out of your system. (If you’re reading this dad, admit it: you’d eat it!)
This year, alas, no Famous Holiday Cheese Salad for me. I’m the only one who would eat it, and frankly, I’m a little scared of the calorie count and what that much sugar could do to my system. In case you’d like to make it, here is the recipe. Bon appetit!