Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Jell-O memories May 10, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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A WEEK BEFORE MOTHER’S DAY, my sister-in-law showed up with a bowl of Jell-O at her granddaughter’s third birthday party. But this wasn’t just any Jell-O. This was Seven Layer Jell-O Salad, multi layers of gelatin in a fancy glass bowl.

Years have passed since I ate Jell-O. It was a staple of extended family gatherings during my growing up years in rural Minnesota. Every “little lunch” served at midnight included red banana-filled Jell-O. In addition to summer sausage sandwiches, homemade dill pickles and pans and pans of bars.


Peach Jell-O. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Sometime through the years, I stopped liking Jell-O. Especially if celery, carrots or marshmallows were added to enhance the basic recipe. I came to associate Jell-O with illness. And in recent years, prep for a colonoscopy (although not red or purple Jell-O).

Still, I admit that I ate a lot of Jell-O as a kid. And I liked it. I was willing to dip my spoon into the bowl of memories and eat a serving of Seven Layer Jell-O Salad prepared by my sister-in-law. She spent a lot of time making those seven layers and I could show some appreciation for her efforts.

But another reason existed for my decision to eat the Jell-O salad, which really is more dessert than salad given its sweetness. Seven Layer Jell-O Salad was a specialty of my mother-in-law, who died in 1993 at the age of 59. I think everyone in the family would agree that Betty wasn’t a particularly good cook. But she made the best homemade caramel rolls, chicken and cottage cheese pie (if you like cottage cheese pie, and I don’t). She also had perfected Seven Layer Jell-O Salad.


My in-laws, Tom and Betty. From the family photo archives of 25-plus years ago.

It’s interesting how food triggers memories. I suppose because so many memories are made over food. On this Sunday in April, I remembered my dear mother-in-law who died just months before my son was born. She wanted a grandson after a long string of granddaughters. If only she’d lived to see her oldest son’s son.

I’m certain, if Betty was living, that she’d still be making Seven Layer Jell-O Salad for family gatherings. It was one of her signature dishes. As in days past, I’d admire the jewel-colored layers, not because the salad is particularly delicious. But because it is layered in family memories.


© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


26 Responses to “Jell-O memories”

  1. Food indeed trigger memories. I’ll come across something every once in a while and I wish I would have asked my mom for that recipe because no one could make it the way she did! Nice pics Audrey. ❤

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    Wonderful post filled with memories. I never make jello but like you it was a staple growing up. Our birthday dinners always included orange jello with mandarin oranges. A real treat back then.

  3. Ruth Says:

    Love your Jell-o post and the memories it evokes. My parents were from Illinois and Jell-o seems midwestern to me. I made a rainbow layer Jell-o and photographed it but didn’t eat it. In my freezer for months. My mom always added fresh lemon juice and a pinch of salt to cut the sweetness.

  4. Jean Mader Says:

    JELL-O -oh the memories! As it happens, I am reading a book, to be released in July, about the family, particularly the women, that started the JELL-O ompany. Fascinating! So JELL-O is on my mind! Thanks

    • Well, then the timing of this post is perfect. How did you get your hands on that book in advance of release? Thanks for the tip. I bet if we all compiled our Jell-O stories, we would have enough for a book.

  5. valeriebollinger Says:

    Ahhh yes…Jell-O and Jell-O salads (ha) and Jell-O jigglers…lots of memories…one thing for sure…Jell-O was colorful.

  6. Jean Fisher Says:

    Jello brings a memory different than your’s. When our son was a toddler we were visiting my parents in MN and the morning we were getting ready to head back to MO he had a stomach bug so my Grandmother suggested we make warm jello and put it in his bottle to take with us so I put the jello and very warm water in a plastic container with the lid on and started shaking to mix it. Well after a few seconds the lid exploded off the container and there was jello everywhere, even on the ceiling, which stayed there and was still there the day my parents moved. Every once in a while someone would ask about the red spots on the ceiling and we would break out laughing again. My poor Mom insisted we get on our way on our 8 hour drive and all day I thought of her having to scrub her kitchen from top to bottom except the ceiling.

  7. treadlemusic Says:

    I don’t believe I’ve come across another person who has such a gelatin avoidance ‘thing’ going on!! To clarify…..I’m totally with ya on the celery, carrots, mayo, “sunshine salad” thing!!! Tom has his preference…..black cherry—–not one added thing! LOL! Interesting how our “associations” shape our tastes.

    • It’s not that I “hate” Jell-O. I don’t. It’s just not a food I choose to make. But I will definitely eat it, minus any carrots, celery or nuts.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        Got it!! To be honest, I forget about it until it comes time to make my rhubarb/strawberry freezer jam (which requires copious amounts of strawberry gel). Yup….vegis belong in lettuce salads!

  8. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    Jello, summer sausage, homemade pickles, bars… are you sure you aren’t writing about my childhood.

    Funny I pass over the jello these days too. Was it served to much in that era or have our tastes changed as adults?

    I’m mighty curious about this cottage cheese pie. Was it a desert or a main or side dish? I’m going to have to google some recipes out of curiosity.

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