I watched my aunt grimace as my stepmom brought Jell-O salad to the dinner table last Thanksgiving.
Her face fell hard when it landed with, “This was my dad’s absolute favorite recipe. It means so much to me.”
My family is divided in two: the half who dedicated their lives to seeming—at least—Chicago-bred and the other who repeatedly drove Fords into ditches, who got married at the local Pizza Hut. One fabled Thanksgiving, when the Chicago half served kale and okra in lieu of green beans and mashed potatoes, my factory-working, Ford-into-ditch-driving grandfather responded with, “What are you trying to do?”
He knew. Maybe you know, too, if you grew up between the coasts. Maybe you recognize the broad strokes others use to paint us, and maybe you’ve worked to defy their dull, monolithic colors. Maybe you’ve felt a distance, a stretch between worlds—urban and rural, coast and country, kale and potatoes—that is simultaneously very made-up and very real. Maybe you’ve also learned to scoff at your own family’s suspended-chunk “salad,” to demonstrate your culture or taste.
My stepmom, a woman stretched between worlds herself, understood what this dish meant: It’s a testament to our grandmothers who cooked three meals a day, trying to put labor back into too-easy desserts for fear of looking lazy. It’s about our families craving the comfort of an ad slogan that told them they could eat like the rich for just ten cents a box. It’s a winter salve, for when fresh fruit is a luxury. It’s how working moms with little money and less time on their hands could make the most of canned pineapple. There may not be a cross-continent, millennia-spanning history here, but this dish means something, if to no one but us, and that is not worth nothing. It may even be worth a place at your table.