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Mabel Lewis's Comfort Jell-O

Do you remember the first time you experienced real grief when a beloved relative died? Maybe relatives died in your young childhood, but you simply saw a lot of crying and didn’t really feel what happened. 

My first experience was when "Unk" passed away. I was a teenager. It wasn’t a tragic accident. Great-uncle Lloyd, simply "Unk" to us, was 94, lived at home, and hadn’t experienced ill health. His heart simply gave out. Later I decided his longevity was due to him having "just a snoot" of "medicine" before bed each night. Today we’d call this a shot of whiskey. My people come from Kentucky, remember, so a good bourbon runs in our veins. Sometimes literally.

 Good ol country baptizin 

Young "Unk" with his cousin Edgar Botkins at the "baptizin’ spot" on the Salt River in north Missouri. 

Unk would even tell us he was heading to the store for his "medicine"–really the liquor store, of course. That’s how Baptists lived back in the day. The churchgoers didn’t criticize him: after all, it was his "medicine"!

That morning of his demise, I headed for his home, which he shared with his daughter, Georgia Ruth. Unk and Georgia Ruth had outlived Unk’s wife, great-aunt Laura, and Georgia Ruth’s two siblings. With Unk gone, only Georgia Ruth was left. The living room was crowded with women comforting her, and arriving with food and hugs. Her kitchen table was laden with casseroles, pies, and, of course, desserts made with Jell-O. The talk was the many stories of Unk, some when he was young, both funny and sad. They also each told how they’d heard the news.

"When I told Marshall," one farm woman said, "he went over to the fence and stood with his back to me. I know he was crying a little." That one shocked me. I never thought of the big, strong farm men I knew as people who would cry. I would see it soon, though; the 1980s farm crisis was about to occur.

You don’t see many gelatin desserts these days, whether it’s for a gathering or not. (People are more likely to ask you to sign an e-Sympathy book, like, which I find strangely unsettling.) In the late 1940s through the 1960s, though, gelatin was not only dessert. Sometimes it was the main course, eaten as part of aspic–a dish that enveloped vegetables and meat within a congealed shape.

Tupperware plus Jello 

The best of both worlds in the 1970s: Jell-O made in a Tupperware mold! 

Tupperware even made a mold with a detachable top, and the set had different images–a heart, star, Christmas tree, etc., so you could customize the top of the mold. Jell-O’s discontinued 1950s flavors include Celery, Mixed Vegetable, Italian, and Seasoned Tomato. I’m sure one of these came in handy when you made a dish like Large Chunks of Vegetables Embodied in Gelatin.

Remember when TV commercials always said the phrase, "Jell-O brand gelatin"? I don’t know about you, but all those years I had never even heard of another brand of gelatin and couldn’t figure out why they said that. Maybe some consumers thought, "I think tonight we’ll have Knox brand gelatin" or "let’s try Royal brand gelatin today."

For those people who wonder what gelatin really is, it’s a protein created from collagen that is extracted from boiling bones, connective tissues and intestines of animals. Try convincing someone of that when they’re eating a mouthful of delicious Cherry Jell-O.

I was reminded of the old days of frequent Jell-O consumption when I found a wonderful book entitled Up a Country Lane Cookbook by Evelyn Birkby.

 Birkby book 

Up a Country Lane Cookbook by Evelyn Birkby, considered Iowa’s best-known homemaker. 

More than a cookbook, this highly readable work tells of the quiet and secure country life in Iowa during the 1940s and 1950s. As Birkby says, "The people who resided in southwest Iowa half a century ago built their lives around the land, their families, their neighborhoods, their schools, and their churches. They reflected the independent, hard-working pioneer spirit that motivated their ancestors to come to this country."

All the stories with that life–sad, funny, tragic–are colorfully recounted by Birkby. She has written a weekly newspaper column, "Up a Country Lane," for more than 50 years. Lonely farm housewives longed for tips and advice beyond their monthly meeting of the Neighbors Club or Homemakers Club, so in the early days of radio, Birkby she hosted a radio program by the same name.

Evelyn Birkby, 93, is still writing, and recently released her latest cookbook. Her story of neighbors bringing food and visiting grieving ones brought back the memory of Unk’s gathering. Since I’ve lived in the city, I’ve never heard of anyone practicing this tradition of bringing food to comfort others, but I’m sure it continues in small towns.

In Birkby’s Iowa farm neighborhood, it was Mabel Lewis who had a go-to recipe for condolences. Mabel Lewis was a "slight woman married to a robust man" and raised six children. She always took her "Comfort Jell-O" to the grieving, Birkby says. Trust me, this Jell-O salad would comfort me any day.

Mabel Lewis’ Comfort Jell-O


1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple

1 3-oz. package of cherry gelatin

2 cups white grapes, halved

Optional: whipped cream or whipped topping

In a medium saucepan heat one cup of water. When boiling, drain pineapple, pouring juice only from can into water. Retain fruit separately. Reduce heat to medium. Dissolve gelatin in water-juice mixture, stirring frequently until dissolved, approximately 2 minutes. Pour into large bowl and let cool for 5 minutes.

Fill a 2-cup liquid measuring cup with ½ cup cold water and enough ice cubes to make approximately 1 ½ cups total. Pour into gelatin and stir until slightly thickened. Remove any remaining ice cubes. (If mixture is still not thickened, place in refrigerator for 15-30 minutes).

Add grapes and pineapple and pour into mold or pan. Chill in refrigerator until firm, approximately 2 hours. Top with whipped cream if desired.

Notes: Do not use fresh pineapple; the gelatin will not set. This makes a fruit-dense dessert. If you prefer more gelatin, you can make the gelatin portion with a 6-oz. package of gelatin and double the water used (do not add extra pineapple or citrus juice).

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Jell-O is a registered trademark of Kraft Foods.