Libbie Summers is a creative director, producer, stylist and the artistic director of her own lifestyle brand A Food-Inspired Life. She is also the author of two books, The Whole Hog Cookbook and the upcoming Sweet and Vicious: Baking With Attitude.
Congealed salads are a little like dandelions in the South –they start showing up about this time every spring, are oddly beautiful, parts are edible and no matter how hard you may try –you just can’t get rid of them. Year after year, generation after generation…dandelions and congealed salads just keep coming back.
When it came to dandelions and congealed salads, my family was no exception. My hog-farming Grandma Lula Mae was the champion of all things growing from the ground AND one particular congealment.
Grandma had a personality and a sense of humor as big as her hair—which was exceptionally large on Fridays after her weekly shampoo and set—except when it came to her Green Top Salad. For that, Grandma didn’t joke around. Her prized jello salad consisted of a mixture of cream cheese, mayonnaise, marshmallows and pineapple layered in the bottom of a clear baking dish. Lime Jello was the flashy jewel that covered the top… thus it’s name: Green Top Salad.
Grandma claimed she came up with the recipe herself, but everyone in the family knew it came from one of the many women’s magazines she subscribed to. On one occasion, my Aunt Darlene questioned the recipe’s origin by telling Grandma she had seen it in a Betty Crocker cookbook. Grandma hit the roof!
“Betty Crocker is a bore!” she screamed. “How could she ever think of something so clever?” I secretly loved every time Grandma called Betty Crocker a bore and never had the heart to tell her that Betty wasn’t a real person, Green Top Salad or not.
Outside of a Double Cola-braised pork butt, Grandma’s Green Top Salad was her show pony, the pride of her cooking repertoire. Each holiday on her farm in Missouri, the salad would be trotted out of the refrigerator and onto the buffet table with as showy a production as a new baby Clydesdale joining the
Budweiser team. It was the time of the meal when I cringed. I sure loved my Grandma, but I didn’t love her Green Top Salad. I can’t pinpoint one particular thing that put me off the salad. It may have been the unnaturally green jello top with it’s faux lime flavoring or the consistency that weirdly went from spongy to crunchy within each bite.
One particular Spring, after being armed with the bravado that comes with completing a full semester at a state university, I made the mistake of telling Grandma her Green Top Salad was not my favorite.
She looked at me like I had suddenly become a vegetarian and held up the meal as she went on and on about the importance of gelatin salads to our country’s history—information like how in 1874 President Grant’s daughter served gelatin at her wedding in the form of an aspic of beef tongue. I really didn’t know where she was going with this, or how Nellie Grant’s unfortunate choice of wedding day fare had anything to do with lime Jello.
But I kept silent like the rest of the family and let Grandma finish her rant. We were all hungry, after all. It took eating a second helping of Green Top Salad that day, as well as cleaning up all of the dirty dishes AND bad-mouthing Betty Crocker, to win my place back in Grandma’s heart. My disdain for
Grandma’s gelatin salad never came up again, but it was never forgotten by either of us.
Near the end of Grandma’s life, I was a young wife and had recently moved into my first house. My mother called to say Grandma was insisting on visiting and bringing a housewarming gift.
On a record hot day, exactly one week after I unpacked my last box, Grandma arrived on my doorstep wearing a smart pant suit and carrying a Green Top Salad.
Although I never developed a taste for Grandma’s Green Top Salad, it’s the first thing I choose from the buffet at a family reunion. Love it or loathe it, that silly gelatin salad with it’s flashy green top will always have a very special place in my heart. Reminding me of my Grandma, her knife-sharp wit and the day she brought me a Green Top Salad as a housewarming gift.
With just one bite, I can vividly remember Grandma and me sitting on the tiny porch of my first home laughing as we ate her Green Top Salad straight from the dish…overlooking a yard filled with the familiar beauty of dandelions.
Look for Sweet and Vicious March 25th! For more information visit libbiesummers.com. And check out our March issue for more new congealed salad recipes including Libbie’s 21st-Century Green Top Salad and our website for more ways to #bringbackthejiggle.