As I sat around a large table with friends for brunch on Easter Sunday, the conversation turned to the one traditional side dish we were all forced to eat on this spring holiday as small children growing up during the 1960s – green Jell-O complimented with fruit cocktail. We all shared a laugh as we recalled our own personal memories of eating this side dish that was considered a fancy salad at every holiday dinner.
Fruit cocktail is an interesting combination of unusually (i.e., artificially) colored fruit. All the fruit tastes the same whether it’s a pineapple chunk, a peach or a pear. What I remember most about fruit cocktail is the best part – the cherry. Unfortunately, the cherry was the loneliest fruit I’ve ever seen in a tin can. Often, there would be only one cherry in the entire fruit population. I looked forward to that cherry as much as I anticipated the candy in my Easter basket.
Regrettably, every time my sister Kim ate fruit cocktail, she gagged incessantly which made for an embarrassing scene at the holiday dinner table. My Aunt Edith really liked fruit cocktail and often added three cans of the lovely fruit to her green Jell-O. Kim would spend most of the dinner trying to pick out the 350 pieces of fruit cocktail within the 2"x2" square of Jell-O. She desperately stuffed the small pieces of fruit down her underpants in order to hide the "evidence" from my mother.
Three hours later, Kim had completed dissecting her salad and was left with exactly two teaspoons of Jell-O on her plate. As she savored those tiny bites of deliciousness, my mother lurked in the background, proving she wasn’t as naive as Kim thought. She was on to my sister’s impromptu science project. After everyone left the table to do dishes, she made Kim empty the contents of her underwear on to her plate and eat it. And we thought she gagged a lot before. Just the thought of the fruit cocktail touching her underwear sent Kim into gagging overload from that afternoon until Memorial Day when she finally managed to finish that huge pile of like-colored, like-tasting fruit. "There now," my mother would say, "That wasn’t so bad now, wasn’t it?" I think I saw my sister make a voodoo doll of Aunt Edith that spring, but I can’t swear to it.
These days, most parents don’t force their children to eat Jell-O salad. Most kids have delicious fruit salad options that include pineapple chunks and mandarin oranges and bananas, not fruit cocktail. I think there’s still a few grandmothers and great aunts out there who are still trying to keep up their own family custom (whether anyone likes it or not), and I can guarantee that children are still stuffing things down their underwear that they don’t want to eat.
It’s tradition, after all.