Learning to Love Trash Salad

A love congeals over a long-despised pistachio-pudding salad

Illustration: JOHN REGO

Watergate Salad, Shut the Gate Salad, Green Stuff, Pink Stuff, Orange Stuff, Mean Green, Golden Gate Salad, Goop, Fluff, Pistachio Delight.

These were the words that set the hook when I started researching what I have come to call, affectionately (but perhaps a bit cruelly), the Great American Trash Salad.

As a child, I refused this congealed thing, this mysterious orb-studded concoction in various colors of shame and regret. It confused me. I didn’t appreciate that it was being sold as a “salad” when it was clearly a dessert. And like any decent, card-carrying child with opinions, I was not fond of mixing my food. This liar of a salad was basically my worst nightmare.

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Thankfully, the Great American Trash Salad made only a few appearances as I grew up. When it did grace the table, I was quick to disavow its presence, my eyes glossing over and straight past it to the deviled eggs and my mom’s macaroni salad—both so perfectly and consistently executed that, frankly, I needed little else at these family gatherings. Then one day, when I showed up to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving in the “Is It Over Yet?” year of 2022, there on the kitchen counter stood a stack of powdered pudding and gelatin boxes teetering like Jenga blocks.

Maybe it was pandemic-induced boredom. Maybe there was a sale on pistachio Jell-O pudding. Maybe my dad requested it. But for some reason, at this moment in time when we were still unsure if we would ever be able to move forward without the continual sting and burden of the global and personal garbage that the past few years had wrought, my mother decided to send me to the store for Cool Whip, mini marshmallows, canned pineapple, and the nut of my choice.

I didn’t ask what we were making. I knew. My eyebrow arched toward my mother as she handed me the list written in her perfect cursive and smiled.

It was Trash Salad time. And at least one of us was excited.

I steadied myself, made my way into the DeFuniak Springs, Florida, Winn-Dixie, and then ditched the list on the passenger seat.

In a store like this, everyone knows exactly what you’re about to go home to do when a frozen tub of Cool Whip, a can of crushed pineapple, a bag of pecans, and a bag of marshmallows are bobbling in your arms. For the first time in my life, I clocked envy, even delight, in the eyes of my fellow shoppers. Old men looked over my groceries with active eyebrows. Little kids pointed and wandered toward me like stray cats that know exactly where the best feeding spots lie. The woman running the cash register said, “Yes, ma’am—enjoy that salad!” to which I thought, pff SALAD! but said, “Oh yes ma’am, you know I will!” even though time had proved to me that I most certainly would not.

Like a good daughter, I headed back to my parents’ farm in Mossy Head resigned to help with this godforsaken mess of a dish. My subversive ass did get no-sugar-added crushed pineapple, though.

I had never made it before, but the salad seemed pretty simple. Mom provided guidance: Drain the pineapple, mix everything together in a bowl, chill. I deputized myself and my fancy pastry chef training with the authority to add: Toast pecans.

Preparing the dish only took as long as the Cool Whip needed to defrost and the nuts needed to toast. But Mom and I took our time just the same, popping mini marshmallows into our mouths and talking about this damn salad, a chat sprinkled with nearly indecipherable nods toward how nice it was to be Here instead of There (you know, the stretch where we couldn’t make any salad together, much less one that felt criminal in its ingredients).

She wasn’t even sure if she liked Trash Salad. She just wanted to try something new—even if it was “new-old.” Think of it as a rediscovery in the new era, she hinted, as she asked about my hopes for the future. As we chatted, I found myself softening, caring less and less after all about just what was in this salad. The marshmallows tasted better than I remembered, their perfect little powdery paunches perched upon my tongue. I found it difficult to avoid sticking a pinkie into the Cool Whip for a taste. Now that I am an adult and no longer balk at mixing my food, I started to imagine just how good the pecans might taste bumping up against the pineapple, and wondered about walnuts for next time. I stirred everything together, and as the pistachio powder began blooming green, an honest-to-god salad appeared right before my very eyes.

We mused over how or when or why this Trash Salad settled into the American psyche and canon of foodstuff, particularly in the South. My later research confused me just as much as the dish once did—a lot of poorly documented stories emerged that all seemed real enough to the person telling them, but with factual misfires. The Watergate Salad moniker arose either due to the fact that the dish became popular during the Watergate scandal era or because a sous-chef at the Watergate Hotel invented it (the hotel doesn’t confirm or deny). Then the trail led to Helen Keller, naturally. Keller documented what she called the Golden Gate Salad in the 1925 cookbook Favorite Recipes of Famous Women, minus the Jell-O and with the addition of delightful surprises such as celery, “French marrons, broken up with syrup,” and a topping that consisted solely of mayonnaise and thick cream. The Alabama native named it such because she had been served a similar dish in California. This early rendition of Trash Salad almost satisfied my curious heart, but I wanted more.

Eventually, I found, all roads lead to the mother of all Trash Salads: sweet ambrosia. While the South can’t take full credit for the ambrosia salad, dappled with bright red maraschinos and flaked with angel-soft sweetened coconut, we certainly elevated it to royalty status, a thing of lore and myth and absolute resolve as not simply a riposte to savory Southern Christmas spreads but a centerpiece. You can practically trace ambrosia’s rise in popularity over the course of the twentieth century alongside the dawn of country-wide citrus distribution, wartime rationing, the industrialization of food by way of canning and packaging and refrigeration, the evolution and standardization of grocery stores, and the deep shift in agriculture and foodways that followed.

But the Great American Trash Salad, so obviously derived from ambrosia? No such grand storyline, no great traditions. Just a scrappy salad, reeking of desperation yet riddled with ingenuity, the green (or pink, or orange) derelict little sister of royalty, a Princess Margaret hungover and smoking in her bed and drinking black coffee until noon, a little frayed and perhaps even slightly cheap if you look too closely but still far more glamorous, and way more fun, than her queen sister.

This is the everyman salad, the outlier salad, the people’s history of the United States salad. Nothing that will show up in encyclopedias, but consequential enough to spark a moment of understanding between you and a stranger at Winn-Dixie about what it means to relish being a human in this time and place.

As the day went on, I became beguiled by the salad, checking it as it chilled in the fridge, hoping it wasn’t getting weird, rooting for it to stay fluffy and light (it did). Mom and I finished assembling the other Thanksgiving dishes, still quietly discussing the disappointments and heartbreaks of the last few years. The detritus of life that never gets documented in any official way. Yet you still whisper the details to your mama in the kitchen when you can, knowing her ears are witness enough to your struggles and urges and hopes and dreams.

We could finally wait no longer, succumbing to our curiosity. Mom grabbed two spoons. I grabbed the Trash from the fridge. We ate damn near half of that salad standing up in a late-night kitchen, just the two of us, laughing and talking and enjoying every single bite of that delicious mess as if I had never hated it, as if I had known all along that one day, I’d give in.