A close-up picture of a slice of Jell-O salad covered in shredded cheese.

How Many Languages Does Your Jell-O Salad Speak?

One fall semester when I was teaching at a college in Minnesota, I had a particularly chatty group of students in my intermediate Spanish course. During the first few minutes of class, we would speak in Spanish about everyday subjects as a way of warming up our language skills before entering into the more complex topics of the class. We got to know each other well that semester as most of the students participated actively in those informal conversations.

About half of the students were from the Twin Cities metropolitan area, with most of the rest being from other parts of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. But there were also two international students, both from France, enrolled in the course. 

A group of exchange students holding the flags of their countries.

One of the side benefits of these beginning-of-class conversations, apart from practicing our Spanish, was that the Midwestern students got to know a little bit about life in France. On the flip side, the French students got to know more about daily life and family traditions of the Midwest. You see, the French students were living in the dormitories and not with host families. While they were immersed in U.S. college life and its accompanying keg parties and fraternity mischief, they didn’t have home lives out in the broader community. The conversations before class, however, gave them a glimpse into Midwestern traditions beyond campus life.

Holiday Traditions

One day before Thanksgiving break, we were talking about holiday traditions in the first few minutes of class. I asked the students if they had any family customs that were not the typical traditions for a particular holiday. In other words, did their families have any holiday customs that would be considered unique to them? Several students shared stories of peculiar games, ways of determining who got the first serving of dessert, or an unusual object that was always placed on the holiday table. Then, one particularly sweet girl from the Minneapolis suburbs shared that in her family it was traditional to eat a “salad” that contained Jell-O.

Define Delicious?

[A point of information for those of you reading this outside of Minnesota or the Upper Midwest: Jell-O “salads” are just about the least unique thing you could eat at holiday meal in this region. Jell-O salads can be consumed at any holiday or large gathering, regardless of the season. In Minnesota, the ingredient combinations of these dishes are limitless, but they always contain at least one flavor of Jell-O, something creamy (whipped cream, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, etc.), fruit (usually canned), and sometimes diced vegetables, nuts, or marshmallows. These “salads” are not, in my estimation, delicious, but they are traditional.]

Balance Having Been Restored

In our little classroom, the other Midwestern students fell silent, not knowing how to react to their classmate thinking that Jell-O salad was something unique to her particular family. Who could shatter her innocence by letting her know that the entire region consumed differing varieties of this gelatinous terribleness? One of the French girls unknowingly came to the rescue.

“Does the Jell-O salad have vodka in it,” she inquired, having obviously been introduced to the concept of Jell-O-shots.

The room erupted into good natured laughter, as this was simply too much to handle, even for the prevailing Midwestern politeness of our little community of learners.

The tension had been broken, but not the illusion of uniqueness of our classmate’s vodka-free, holiday Jell-O salad. All was well once again in intermediate Spanish, and so we began our discussion of the pluperfect subjunctive.

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