Utah Pioneer Day means family, food and Jell-O

Pioneer Day and food preservation are essential to Utah’s culture, which is intricately tied to the customs and calendar of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Mormon Church. Family and community gatherings — often potlucks, picnics and barbecues — are often also religious affairs.

Pioneer Day, the official state holiday celebrated July 24th, commemorates the day in 1847 that the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley after leaving Illinois in the wake of the murder of their leader Joseph Smith. The day is often celebrated with large family gatherings around food.

The tradition of Jell-O salads at these events is particularly Utah. After World War II, there was increased demand for processed and easily prepared foods. Jell-O marketers found the jiggly dessert a perfect home in the state with the highest birthrates and consequently the most children to enjoy it. In 2001, Jell-O became the official state food of Utah with only two dissenting votes, and in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Salt Lake City, Utah and Des Moines, Iowa, were embroiled in a heated battle for the title of highest per capita Jell-O sales. The iconic symbolism of Jell-O was further preserved in the commemorative Utah Green Jell-O Olympics pins for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Here Jen Osland recounts her memories of Pioneer Day (and yes, they involve Jell-O), and talks of her mother and aunts gathering to can the fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens, another common practice in large families. One principle of the Mormon religion is self-reliance, such as home food storage of non-perishable foods that can feed the family for three months to a year.

The image of Jen’s mother and aunts sitting and canning for days is the kind of industriousness that earned the state its nickname – the Beehive State. The beehive is the symbol of the Mormon Church, again illustrating the connection in Utah between church and state – and food.

– Text by Nora Scheland

– Video by Carol Hallowell

Makes one 5-cup gelatin mold

Million Dollar Gelatin

Sadly, this gelatin mold does not contain actual money. Gelatin molds and "salads" -- gelatin filled with fruit or even vegetables -- are popular in Utah's culinary culture. This recipe was adapted from "Hello, Jell-O," by Victoria Belanger.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin powder
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 1 8-ounce tub frozen whipped topping, thawed
  • 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup drained canned crushed pineapple*
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Instructions

In a large bowl, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the cold water. Let stand two minutes. Add the boiling water to the mixture and stir until the gelatin is fully dissolved. Stir in the whipped topping and condensed milk and beat with a whisk until the mixture is smooth. Refrigerate until thickened, about 90 minutes. Fold in the pineapple and pecans, then spoon the mixture into a 5-cup mold. Refrigerate until firm, which will take at least 4 hours. Unmold and serve.

*Use only canned pineapple, drained well, otherwise the mold won't firm up.

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One Response to Utah Pioneer Day means family, food and Jell-O

  1. Kerry July 18, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Thanks for sharing these sweet memories, Jen. There’s something so special about canning and food preserving – the harvest, preparation and enjoyment of the finished products – that preserves our link to the bounty of the land – even if done on a scale much more modest than what you described. I hope you carry on that tradition. Warm Regards!

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