Saturday, June 17, 2017

Power Food

No fifty-something year old woman with no children or grandchildren around and who is fairly competent in the kitchen should be making a special trip to the grocery store to buy cream cheese, pretzels, Cool Whip, and Jello, all to be used in the same recipe...and be excited about it.  But, this is exactly where I find myself today.  I partially blame my Sifted Together blog buddy, Tracey, for this predicament in which I find myself.  She gave me a subscription to Taste of Home’s Simple & Delicious magazine for Christmas and this recipe is on the front cover of the June/July issue.  However, I can’t let Tracey take full blame for my enthusiasm surrounding the making of this recipe, most of it really is couched in realizing the power of food.

Let’s start with the individual ingredients…

Cool Whip - Most people won’t admit it, but almost everyone has a personal relationship with Cool Whip.  It may not be a basic staple in their diet, but I bet there is some family recipe that shows up at family holiday gatherings, probably made by grandma or passed down through her, that has Cool Whip as an integral ingredient.  And we all know that the holiday feast would not be the same without this dish. 

Cream Cheese - Cream cheese is the secret ingredient in  many dips, sauces, appetizers, and desserts.  I’m not much on eating plain cream cheese spread on my bagels, but I am as guilty as the next guy of using cream cheese for that extra oomph in a recipe, especially mashed potatoes.  But, don’t tell anybody!!!

Pretzels - I have to admit that pretzels, as far as I’m concerned, are a basic food group.  They are my favorite “chip” alongside a sandwich, afternoon snack with a Diet Coke, dessert when dipped in chocolate, and the perfect complement to a nice cold beer.  I’m not much of a drinker, but when I do indulge an adult beverage, my preference is a good beer.  That right there probably explains why I am excited about this Pretzel-Cool Whip-Jello recipe! :-)

And then there’s the Jell-O

I have a love-hate relationship with Jell-O.

As a child, Jell-O was a mainstay dessert at my house, made a bit more “healthy” with the addition of canned fruit salad.  Those of us of a certain age will definitely remember this combo.  And if you do, you will also remember that the flavor of Jell-O didn’t matter.  Whatever mom had on hand would do.  I was OK with this “dessert” except for the grapes in the canned fruit cocktail.  They brought the whole experience down a notch.  Grapes should not be canned under any circumstances!

I didn't carry on the family tradition of this Jell-O fruit salad dessert with my girls, but the canned grapes are not the reason.  My girls are the reason.  Let’s see if I can explain this delicately.  When I was pregnant, I had terrible morning sickness…and afternoon and evening and night sickness…and it lasted from conception to eviction.  My inability to keep any food down landed me in the hospital numerous times with both girls.  As any of you who have been in the hospital and on a liquid diet know, Jell-O is served at every meal.  I ate, and often returned, Jell-O in every color and flavor…except strawberry and cherry because they don’t give you red Jell-O in the hospital.  Apparently my prenatal Jell-O experience affected my children because neither one of them has ever really liked Jell-O.

Fast forward sixteen years, when I had suppressed the many episodes of returned Jell-O and other unpleasantries of pregnancy and childbirth, and Jell-O makes a fresh appearance in my life.

Weber, Offspring No. 2, and I went to Delaware to visit my dad.  While there, we had a lunch date with Dad's side of the family - his mother and my grandmother, his sister and my aunt, and one of my cousins.  We met at a local restaurant that was a cross between your typical local diner and Luby’s cafeteria.  As I was perusing the menu trying to make my lunch choice, my aunt and grandmother both said that I HAD to try the Jell-O Pretzel Salad.  For an instant, visions of canned grapes whirling around with pretzels danced in my head until I read the description of said “salad.”  Thankfully, no canned grapes were used in the making of this salad.  Frankly, there was really nothing about this side dish that resembled anything that I would call a salad.  Not only were no canned grapes harmed in the making of this salad, no fruit or vegetable of any kind was used, according to the menu description.  In this case, I think the word “salad” was attached in much the same way that “natural ingredients” is used on chocolate chip cookie packaging; these terms are meant to make us feel better about making not the healthiest food selections.  Whatever.  That day was about time with family, not about obsessing about food choices.  That said, I ordered the Jell-O Pretzel Salad and it was delicious!

After we returned home from that trip, I made the "salad" a time or two.  I hadn’t thought about it much since then until it appeared on the cover of the current issue of Simple & Delicious.  When I saw it, my first response was that I needed to make this recipe right now!  Usually when I thumb through food magazines, I make a mental note of recipes that I want to try.  Eventually I come back to them; or, I don’t.  I resisted the urge to go to the store and buy the ingredients right then, however that self control lasted less than twenty-four hours.  In the middle of the day, with a heat index of 105 degrees, Weber took me to the grocery store for pretzels, cream cheese, Cool Whip, and Jell-O.

I got to work making the “salad” when we got home.  Despite its simple ingredients, this is not an immediate gratification kind of dish.  The pretzel crust has to be baked and cooled completely before the cream cheese and Cool Whip layer is added.  This layer must then chill.  The Jello is made, cools, and partially sets before it can be poured atop the the pretzel and cream cheese base and sets completely.  The whole process takes a couple of hours

My creation was ready to be sliced and eaten about 10pm.  Jell-O Pretzel Salad…it was what’s for dinner.  Yeah, I completely forgot about making real dinner.  Sorry, honey!  Weber sat down with me and we enjoyed our treat together.  It was every bit as good as I remember even though I used black cherry Jell-O instead of the “traditional” strawberry.

As I cleaned up our dishes from this late night treat, I started thinking about why I was so intent on making this recipe.  I realized that it had little to do with the food itself - don’t get me wrong; this is delicious! - and more to do with the circumstance around which I first ate it.

That trip to Delaware and seemingly casual lunch back in June of 2009 was so much more…
  • It was my first trip back to Delaware since  my mother’s funeral in January of 2007
  • It was the first time I had seen my dad since I got divorced.
  • It was the trip on which I introduced Weber to my dad.
  • It was the first time in many, many years that I had seen my grandmother, aunt, and cousin.  (My mom was not much of a family person unless it was her side of the family.)
  • For the first time I saw my dad and his sister banter back and forth like brothers and sisters do, yet there there was an undercurrent of unmistakable and unconditional love.
  • That lunch was the last time that I saw my grandmother alive, the last time that I would be part of a four generation gathering of my family.
  • At the end of our stay in Delaware, despite me being forty-something, Weber asked my dad for my hand in marriage.

Looking back, I now understand why the Jello-O Pretzel Salad elicited such a visceral response in me.

And today as I sit here writing, I am facing the third Father’s Day without my dad and realizing that this day marks the fifth anniversary of my grandmother’s death.

Thank you for the memories, Jello-O Pretzel Salad.  You and I can enjoy one another remebering the first time we met and being thankful for those memories

Here’s to the power of food…