Thursday, June 11, 2015

Blair Witch Jell-O

When I still lived on Dutch Quad, I ate at the quad dining hall fairly often. We were given a certain number of meals for the week, but if I went down for lunch the lady working usually waved me through without swiping, which meant I could get lunch for free and save my prepaid meals for dinner a few nights a week. Dining hall food is dining hall food: sometimes it's surprisingly good, and there are some recipes that the staff did particularly well.

There were some nights, though, when the cafeteria served what the RA's and I referred to as "Blair Witch Dinner".

If it's been a while since you saw The Blair Witch Project, let me explain: the last third of the movie pretty much consists of the two surviving protagonists running through the woods before jerking to a stop and screaming, "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?" in terror while sobbing and pointing. That's pretty much what happened on the nights that the cafeteria served Blair Witch Dinner, too. You'd be dragging your tray down the serving line, talking to whoever you came down with, passing the chicken, passing some potatoes, passing the vegetarian entrée, and then JESUS CHRIST, WHAT IS THAT? WHAT IS IT? OH, GOD, OH, GOD, OH, GOD!

Sheer terror, in the form of food.

Nothing they ever served us at the Dutch Quad Cafeteria, though, ever reached the terror of last week's Antipasto Salad.

I have touched the soul of horror, and it is made of Jell-O.

Antipasto Salad (4)

This all started when I bought that Jell-O cookbook and decided to cook from it. I opened Pandora's Jell-O Box, and visited sorrow upon my kitchen. After successfully completing the Topaz Parfait super-dessert, I decided to try something more challenging, more daring, not stopping to think about how much more intense things could get when I wanted to eat something more challenging, taste-wise, than a dessert made from artificially flavored lemon gelatin and coffee.

I decided to try the Barbecue Salad.

I was initially pretty suspicious of this recipe. After all, it called for canned tomato sauce, vinegar, salt, pepper, and orange gelatin. One of those things is not like the others, a Jet among Sharks, but I assembled my ingredients and a stack of 7 ounce Pyrex 407s, which seemed the perfect size for individual servings of Barbecue Salad:

Barbecue Salad (1)

The recipe said it would make three cups, but I opted to use the fourth 407 to stabilize the other three, so that I could move them in and out of the refrigerator to set without them sliding around and spilling. I set about mixing the ingredients:

Barbecue Salad (2)

(I really need a 2-4 cup glass measuring cup if I'm going to keep doing things to Jell-O, because the boiling water is melting that plastic one a little more each time) and poured them into the 407s to set overnight in the fridge, after which they looked about like you expect tomato Jell-O to look:

Barbecue Salad (3)

I dipped one of the bowls in a larger bowl of hot water until the Jell-O released from the bowl, and unmolded it onto a Pyrex Ebony plate of spring mix salad greens:

Barbecue Salad (5)

And then I ate it. After a little bit of experimentation, I figured out that the best way to do it was to slice a chunk of the Barbecue Salad off with the fork, spear a few leaves, and then eat the whole forkful at once. Believe it or not, it really wasn't that bad. It was like a really savory salad dressing, and didn't taste like sweet orange Jell-O at all. The combination of vinegar and tomato sauce was really acidic, but on the second night I topped the salad with a dollop of mayonnaise like the cookbook suggested:

Barbecue Salad with Mayo

and it really wasn't bad. In fact, after I let it sit for a few minutes so that the Barbecue Salad could lose some of its chill and warm up a little, I was almost completely over the weird texture. I would actually eat this again, despite how disturbing the recipe sounded. Maybe I was wrong about the other recipes, too. Maybe the pictures weren't really as scary as they looked. Maybe I should try another salad, and see if I was again pleasantly surprised.

Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead.

I didn't, though. I pressed onward, turning pages and thinking until I arrived at the Antipasto Salad.

That's where this all goes to hell.

The Antipasto Salad consists of a lot of things you would put in an antipasto (olives, salami, pepperoni, Swiss cheese, celery, and onions, which I omitted), suspended in a mixture of lemon Jell-O, vinegar, and salt. Eager to try, ready to challenge myself in the kitchen and explore new things, I got to dicing:

Antipasto Salad (1)

and then got to mixing the other ingredients in a Pyrex Opal 023. Unlike the last recipe, this one actually called for a little bit of technique: after mixing the boiling water, salt, gelatin, and vinegar, I had to add in ice cubes and stir for three to five minutes until the mixture partially thickened.

Antipasto Salad (2)

The reason for doing so is that when you add things to the gelatin, you want them suspended in it. Otherwise, they'll just sink to the bottom. After four minutes it was visibly thicker, so I scooped out the remaining ice cubes as instructed, added my ingredients, put the lid on, and put the whole thing in the refrigerator overnight to set. When I finished, it looked about how you would expect a bowl of Jell-O with hunks of cheese, meat, and vegetables in it to look:

Antipasto Salad (3)

Perfect, right? I scooped a heaping spoonful onto my only Pyrex Waffle House plate:

Antipasto Salad (4)

and that's when things turned bad. The flavor wasn't terrible, and I tried to explain this to my friends. It tasted like a heavily dressed antipasto. The texture, though, is a bridge too far. Do you like chewing cold celery and chunks of cold cheese and cold salami after sucking a mouthful of thick, slimy liquid off of them? If so, this is the dish for you. It's not the dish for me. Right now, it's sitting in the refrigerator missing only that first spoonful.

When I went back to the refrigerator on the second night fully intending to try it again I thought about the chewing, the texture, having that in my mouth and having to chew it and feeling it slide around my teeth and my stomach gave an actual, physical lurch, so hard that I had to grab my kitchen counter.

My body physically recoiled from the memory of the Antipasto Salad.

I grabbed my book, left my apartment, and walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. I did that again the next night. Since then, I've just pretended that it's not sitting in there, waiting, gelled and ready on the bottom shelf. It's going to be there forever, you know. It's not like it will go bad. The food is sealed in lemon gelatin like flies in amber, but the memory in my head is still squirming and alive.

I tried to put it all behind me, and moved back to one of the dessert chapters. I'd had success with dessert. Dessert is my friend. Dessert would never hurt me like salad would.

Dessert betrayed me, too.

I decided to make the Peach Gem Pie, which is basically Jell-O with peaches in a pie crust. I unrolled a premade pie crust into a Pyrex Visionware pie plate, lined it with parchment paper, and filled it with uncooked rice:

Peach Gem Pie (1)

Leaving the rice in there while it bakes keeps the shape of the crust, and the parchment paper keeps it from sticking to the crust as it bakes. I forgot to use it once when I was making a quiche crust and had to pick a whole bunch of uncooked rice out of the bottom of the crust before I could pour in my quiche filling, and since then I've never forgotten again. Once the crust was done I mixed up the gelatin, stirred in some ice until it thickened quite a bit, added the peaches, and let it set. It looks about like you think a pie filled with Jell-O should look:

Peach Gem Pie (2)

The problem is that the Jell-O made the pie crust soggy. Really soggy. Mushy and soggy. The slice started losing its shape as soon as I plated it on Pyrex Tiburon:

Peach Gem Pie (3)

but I ate it anyway.

I've peeled the crust off of every piece since then, and just eaten it as a bowl of Jell-O with peaches.


Justin Bower said...

I have a similarly dated "Fondue Cookbook" from the 60's/early 70's that was my parents. There are even notes in the liner about the results for different meals. I need to get that thing out and try it for some old school oddness.

Marcheline said...

Ye gods and little fishes, Joel. You should have put a "Warning: Causes Nausea" advisory at the top of this post. Although, come to think of it, the words "Blair Witch" should really have been enough of a clue.

I understand collecting vintage, disgusting recipe booklets touting the use of one product in every single recipe. I really do. They're for LAUGHING AT, Joel... not cooking with!

I now permanently have the weebers and will most likely not sleep tonight, thanks to the photo of the cat puke (I mean antipasto) on a plate.

Thanks for that.