The 1978 Thorn Grove Baptist Church cookbook has a dozen different variants on the gelatin salad, which is common for cookbooks in this era. I love Jell-O, and I grew up in a community that loved these sorts of salads. Most were simple mixtures of flavored Jell-O and canned fruit, sometimes with added dairy or nuts. As a child having the opportunity call such an impossibly sweet concoction a “salad” felt like I was winning at life. These days the gelatin salad is more of a curiosity or even a punchline. We tend to remember the more bizarre variants, such as Jell-O with shredded carrots or God forbid tuna fish, but I frankly don’t think they were ever that common. I was never crazy about a Jell-O salad with nuts but they weren’t terrible. The worst I can remember was an orange Jell-O salad filled with pineapple and improbably topped with Miracle Whip. It wasn’t awful, but won’t be going out of my way to recreate that recipe anytime soon.
Among the pages and pages of gelatin salads in Thorn Grove’s cookbook there’s a recipe simply titled Coke Salad. It’s made with black cherry Jell-O, canned fruit, and a half-can of Coca-Cola. This might seem odd to the modern reader, but Coca-Cola and gelatin salads are something of a fixture in my vintage church cookbooks, and history goes back even farther than that. My 1933 pamphlet What Mrs. Dewey did with the New Jell-O! includes a variant with the inauspicious title “Novelty Dessert”. It’s little more than the basic Jell-O recipe with Coca-Cola instead of water, but the pairing clearly had the imprimatur of Jell-O’s parent company.
The original recipe calls for black cherry Jell-O which, for whatever reason, every local store in my area seems only to stock in the sugar-free variety. This wouldn’t have been my first choice, but seemed to work just fine and was preferable to using the bright red cherry flavor. It’s also important to use dark, sweet cherries such as S&W brand or, if you have one nearby, Trader Joe’s dark sweet Morello cherries. Maraschino cherries or pie filling won’t work – this dish is sweet enough as it is.
There’s a hint of cola flavor in the final product, but what you’ll taste are the dark cherries. The pineapple lends a little bit of texture and perhaps some acid. What the cola does provide is a sultry dark opacity, courtesy of the caramel color. This does not elevate it to some higher culinary plane, but it makes it a little more alluring as a side dish or at the potluck table. Enjoy!
- Mix 1/2 cup of the reserved pineapple juice with 1/2 cup of the reserved cherry juice and bring to a boil. Dissolve gelatin in hot liquid. Remove from heat and stir in Coca-Cola.
- (optional) Chill mixture for 1-2 hours in the refrigerator. Gelatin salads are sometimes more uniform if the gelatin is slightly set before adding mix-ins.
- Cut cherries in half. Stir in pineapple, cherries, and walnuts. Refrigerate until gelatin is set, about 4-6 hours total.