For as long as I can remember it sat, every November, on our Thanksgiving table, next to the turkey and the stuffing and the cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. I assumed it was a universal tradition, a side dish everyone was familiar with. In first grade Mrs. Kulina asked us to draw a picture of what Thanksgiving looked like to us. Using only the brightest green crayons I could find, I drew my masterpiece, a quivering green lump inverted onto a glass plate: Seafoam salad. Everyone gawked at what I’d drawn, viscerally unhappy with my description of the Jell-o side dish. It was then, in 1998, that I realized that the lime Jell-o dish my family treated like a delicacy was not, in fact, normal.
Here’s how you arrive at seafoam salad: you drain a big can of sliced pears, but you reserve the pear juice (have I already lost you?). The pear juice goes in a saucepan with some water until it boils, and then you add it to one large package of lime Jell-o in a heat-resistant bowl and you stir until the Jell-o dissolves. Add a cup of cold water. This will help cool off the pear juice-Jell-o mixture. Meanwhile, you want to blend the pears in a blender until they reach applesauce-like consistency. At this point you want to add the Jell-o mixture to the bowl (in Grandma Janet’s instructions, she notes that this mixture will splatter, so you want to “cover a little with foil.” We don’t do this because we don’t understand what it means.) Once it’s blended together, you want to take the cream cheese you have softened (“for most of a day,” per Grandma Janet. The person who runs the FDA is shaking.) and use a fork to mash in some cream, and then take this dairy mixture and mix it into the Jell-o-pear mixture. There’s a note on the index card to “add in pears,” but you’ve already done this, and it’s unclear to me how you could have come this far without incorporating the pears already, so ignore it. Once it’s a mostly homogenous pastel green color, you want to pour it into a mold and let it sit in a fridge overnight. Invert and serve at Thanksgiving the next day.
I’ve learned that there are a lot of families that make something resembling seafoam salad but the way it got to our Thanksgiving table originated with my dad’s family. It started with Harriet Lucasen, my dad’s great-grandmother. Harriet was born Harriet Jacks, from a family of German Jews. She married Miner Lucasen, who according to my dad was a “diminutive, bald-headed Nordic/Dane Lutheran who had a series of sales jobs including selling ice cream and sweets. He was a grumpy guy.” Perhaps his career foreshadowed our family’s eventual arrival in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The recipe got passed down from Harriet to her daughter, aunt Bea Brown, my dad’s great aunt, and then got passed to my great-grandma Jackie Kosoff, her sister, and then got passed onto my late grandma Janet Kosoff, who passed the seafoam salad recipe card, written in her impossibly loopy cursive handwriting, to my mom, which does not make sense because my parents have been divorced for 20 years and at the point at which the recipe card transfer happened I have to imagine my mom was no longer her daughter-in-law, but nevertheless it remains in my mom’s enormous Ziploc bag of recipe cards that we unearth every Thanksgiving (my parents do Thanksgiving together, it’s a whole thing, we make the desserts at my mom’s house and then we bring them to my dad’s the next day). But don’t take my word for how we arrived at seafoam salad, because this is what happened when I asked my parents about it this week:
The seafoam salad recipe is also infamously immortalized on the internet. I accidentally became responsible for this last Thanksgiving by tweeting out my late grandmother’s recipe for seafoam salad. Thousands of people online who read my beloved grandma Janet’s recipe proceeded to be very disgusted with me. And not even for the first time! As I should know by now, people who are bored at home with their families over the holidays will take what is on the internet and run with it. “Jell-O and cream cheese?! People share their family’s wildest Thanksgiving recipes,” Today.com’s headline read. HuffPost went with “This Twitter Thread On Weird Thanksgiving Side Dishes Does Not Disappoint.” Fox News decided to go for the alarmist “‘Weird’ Thanksgiving side dishes go viral in horrifying Twitter thread.” Nobody asked the Daily Mail, which chimed in with “We’ll stick with turkey! Twitter users reveal the most stomach-churning side dishes their families serve on Thanksgiving — from Jell-O ‘salad’ to bologna ‘cake’ with ranch ‘frosting’.” BuzzFeed rudely characterized the whole thing as “I’m Calling The Police After Seeing Some Of These Thanksgiving Dishes People Make.” Mashable’s just felt like it was punching down: “How to make a recipe the internet will hate in 14 easy steps.”
Someone on a Jell-o YouTube channel made seafoam salad. So did a blogger, who described it as “refreshing lime, with a creamy yet sandy texture, and I’m just not sure how you can not like it. I can especially see this being a good palate cleanser on Thanksgiving or great with grilled fish on a hot day.” This is probably a good time to pause and mention that seafoam salad has always reminded me of a particular scene from the movie the Princess Diaries.
Some of these takes about our cherished family recipe were mean, and to some extent I get it: the recipe, on its face, does not look good. It’s easy to dunk on. But we don’t make it because it looks appealing! We don’t even make it because it tastes good, although it does taste kind of like lime sherbert, if that sounds good to you. We make it for the reason we’ve made it for decades: because it’s my grandfather’s favorite part of the meal, and he’s frankly pretty old and should be able to eat as much seafoam salad as he wants once a year, and it’s nostalgic and has become kind of funny at this point.
I realize I’m jumping the gun on this a bit. Halloween is still a few days away. But forgive me for not being sufficiently excited for a holiday I can’t appropriately celebrate this year in costume at a friend’s apartment where a guy dressed as a screen door is wreaking havoc on a makeshift dancefloor surrounded in close proximity by other people. In my mind, although Thanksgiving will be a necessarily small and understated affair this year, it’s the next thing I have to be excited about.
I was thinking about my family’s associations with Jell-o last month when I read Allie Rowbottom’s memoir Jell-o Girls, which is ostensibly about America’s most famous dessert but is really a quite dark book about three generations of women in her family who were inheritors of the Jell-o fortune, but also inheritors of so much trauma and illness and oppression, not at all the saccharine read I expected when I found it on the sidewalk on Putnam Avenue one hazy Sunday in August. Rowbottom’s great-great-great uncle bought the Jell-o business for $450 in 1899 and sold it 26 years later for $67 million. Rowbottom’s family, and the origins of the Jell-o factory, are based in a town called Le Roy, New York, an hour and a half west of where my family was eating seafoam salad every Thanksgiving for several decades in Syracuse. In her book, Rowbottom deftly connects the trauma and oppression the women in her family faced to the bizarre incident of 18 girls in Le Roy who in 2011 all fell victim to debilitating and inexplicable tics and twitches. She also highlights the history of Jell-o and its gendered marketing campaigns throughout the 20th century, which had never explicitly occurred to me but made sense. How did Harriet Lucasen start making seafoam salad at the same time that housewives across the country were also making it for their own families in the middle of the 20th century? Jell-o reached them all the same way, through ad campaigns for women feeding their families.
After the seafoam salad publicity incident of 2019, dozens of people reached out to me to share stories of their own family Jell-o salads (“salad” is a loose term here, obviously), or to let me know that they made seafoam salad themselves for their Thanksgiving dinner. Learning that other people have other names for the same food we grew up eating — ambrosia salad, “the green stuff,” etc — was jarring. This thing we thought was ours actually is a more universal experience than I had been led to believe in my childhood. We make seafoam salad — which, to be clear, is a multi-step process that requires preparation an entire day before Thanksgiving — out of familial obligation, sure, but it’s also tradition. When we retrieve the star-shaped mold from the wall in the kitchen where my mom hangs it 363 days of the year, it feels like a nod to the generations of people in our family who aren’t at our Thanksgiving table anymore. My dad grew up eating seafoam salad at every Thanksgiving with his family, back when grandma Janet used to make it just for my grandpa at a much smaller Thanksgiving dinner. When we invert the seafoam salad onto a platter before we serve dinner, everyone toiling in the kitchen stops what they’re doing to watch it happen (in large part because it is an unwieldy operation). Thankfully, it’s the most exciting thing that happens at our Thanksgiving every year.
Here’s grandma Janet’s seafoam salad recipe:
1 large package lime Jell-o
1 large can of pears
1 large cream cheese, softened (8 oz is fine)
3 tbsp half-and-half or heavy cream
Heavy cream (whipped) or Cool-Whip, for serving
- Put Jell-o powder in a big heat-proof bowl.
- Heat pear juice to just boiling — add enough water, if necessary, to the pear juice to reach 2 cups.
- Once boiling, pour over Jell-o and dissolve.
- Add one cup of cold water to the Jell-o bowl. Let cool down.
- Beat pears in a blender until you reach applesauce-like consistency.
- Add to Jell-o mix and use a beater to blend. Beat on low or medium speed until just blended.
- Mix cream cheese, which you have hopefully been softening all day, with 3 tbsp of cream using a fork.
- Blend the dairy mixture well into the Jell-o mixture until it reaches a relatively homogenous, pastel-green hue.
- Pour into Jell-o molds. Any extra can be put in bowls. Refrigerate overnight until firm.
And here’s the recipe in her handwriting, for posterity: