Jello Salad is a Weird Ethnic Food

a white cat on a couch with some Bud Light. Let me show you mah ethnicity. First, I’d like to say that these people have a point. There’s a lotta white people on ScienceBlogs! More than in the science blogosphere generally? I don’t know – pinning down the demographics of the blogosphere is tricky. More than in science generally? Razib has the numbers.

There are any number of places to go from here, but Alice has asked us all to share our ethnic stories, so that’s where I’m going to go with this today. Perhaps I will carp on the defensive nature of people’s response to observations of racial skew, or think of something intelligent to say about Janet’s post, or fawn over the new blogs I am finding by exploring the Urban Scientist’s blogroll, some other time.

So. I am a North Euorpean mutt from the Midwest, and I grew up in a liberal town where people liked to address racial issues by exploring their heritage and celebrating diversity in a fairly superficial (but fun) way that involved lots of traditional music, costumes, and food – especially food. My traditional ethnic food is hotdish*, and my traditional ethnic dessert is a Jello mold with fruit in it.

I can’t remember if anyone in my family actually brought hotdish to an “ethnic food” potluck, or if it was just a running joke. You are not supposed to bring hotdish or Jello to a cultural heritage potluck. If your ethnic food is hotdish, you are expected to bring corned beef or pierogies or sauerkraut or lefse – something that is conventionally associated with a country in which one of your ancestors used to live, that your family might or might not still eat on a regular basis or as part of a ritual meal for special occasions.

Now, so far in the responses to Alice’s prompt, and in other situations where this sort of thing comes up in conversation, I have noticed a tendency for white Americans to talk an awful lot about their ancestors. Some of them also talk about their multicultural childhood neighborhoods. But even though a majority of my ancestors came from Germany, and I can sort of mumble along to the Schnitzelbank Song, I am not German. Neither is my grandmother, despite the fact that that is her first language, or the rest of my family, despite the kitschy signs that proudly announce “You can always tell a German, but you can’t tell ’em much!” to the users of our various spare bathrooms.

Having ancestors who immigrated from Northern Europe means that I saw my own genealogy reflected in the main narrative thread of the history textbook, while others got the “diversity boxes”. There is absolutely no ducking the fact that my ancestry has granted me full membership in the institution of white privilege, but quite a lot has happened in my family since those cholera-ridden steerage-class Atlantic crossings. If I use stories about Germany or Scandinavia to give myself some culture, I’m not so much critiquing the way the cultural construction of whiteness has separated me from my heritage as I am perpetuating the idea that the North European-American whitebread mishmash culture I’ve got either doesn’t exist, or isn’t “ethnic”.

I’m not sure what the people who brag about the racial diversity of their childhood friends are doing, but whatever it is, it smells funny.

Finally, in lieu of an actual conclusion, I will present an anecdote about my personal experience of white privilege, which has absolutely nothing to do with my German heritage and everything to do with my skin color and broadcast standard accent.

The other day I was poking about with a couple of friends at the entrance to the Lawson Adit, which is a tunnel on the Berkeley campus used around the turn of the last century as a teaching tool for the mining program. It goes 4,000 feet into the hills, intersects the Hayward Fault, and was the subject of squabbles among the Fathers of Seismology. It is also locked up.

A cop came by, wondering why we were so interested in the lock. We told her that we were geologists, and sweet-talked her into opening the door so we could step inside the adit for a bit. Would that have happened if we hadn’t been so clearly geeky-looking, i.e., white and Asian? Hah. I suppose it’s possible, but… hah.

The End.

*Hotdish, for those of you without Minnesota roots, is a generic term for a class of casserole. It typically involves cream of mushroom soup, and is topped with tater tots or corn flakes or shoestring potatoes or a highly Americanized version of chow mein noodles that comes in a bag and bears a striking resemblance to shoestring potatoes, or maybe curly strips of cardboard.


  1. Cherish wrote:

    So did anyone ever force you to eat lutefisk? :-P

  2. Corey wrote:

    In my french class in high school we each had to do a presentation on a food from our culture (I guess to get us thinking about culture in general and then french culture?). I brought orange jello.

  3. Kim wrote:

    I have been known to describe my ethnic background as “half-Iowan,” so the Jello mold? Oh, yeah.

    Meanwhile, I learned to cook a traditional Finnish bread from the Moosewood cookbook. That should be a warning sign: Guilty White Liberal Here.

  4. wrpd wrote:

    In northern Illinois it had to be green jello. A good friend of mine–a professor of Physics at a local college–and I conspired with several people to try to have everyone bring a green jello mold to a pot-luck dinner. We wound up with fifteen green jello molds. The other people didn’t find it unusual at all.
    I am a total WASP. The bulk of my ancestors came from England. My most recent immigrant ancestors arrived here in 1840. The only group of non-English speaking ancestors arrived in New York from the Netherlands in 1668. By then the area was controlled by the British, so they learned English quickly. None of them came here for religious reasons. None of them were oppressed in their country of origin. None of them came here because of famines, droughts, or other catastrophes. They came here to earn money. We never had any ethnic enemies, except maybe the French, but who doesn’t hate them?
    Having said that I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago where everyone else was of first or second generation Polish immigrants. We moved there when I was ten. Talk about culture shock. They hated everyone. The kids were told not to talk to the lady who lived at the end of the block because she was Lutheran. We became good friends. I went away to college just to escape from the neighborhood and find some sort of ethnic diversity.

  5. phil wrote:

    jello salad? Gaack…maybe where you come from but we tend to make salads out of lettuce.

  6. Sandra Porter wrote:

    Not tater tot hotdish! I thought that was a Methodist thing.

    Of course I grew up near Minneapolis, so I ate it too.

  7. baryogenesis wrote:

    I have run into the lime-green Jell-o mold “salad” with embedded mini-marshmallows and shredded carrots at many summer picnics all over North American over many decades. Passed it by once I was out of my teens. Very white, Ohio, 3rd generation Polish background.

  8. Nathaniel wrote:

    I’m rather proud of the fact that I’m 5/32nths Native American. My mother is 1/16th and my father 1/8th, from two different tribes. I don’t know which due to racism and forgeries of birth certificates… but it’s there. The rest is all over the place with a big helping of Irish.

    Our ethnic food of choice is “what ever we find in the pantry we throw in a pot” and of course a lot of alcohol.

    As for your anecdote, I would imagine that if you where significantly nerdy they would let you in no matter what your ethnicity (so long as it was plausible that you where a geologist). I’m also certain that if you where wearing baggy jeans and enough gold to sink a small boat… then you might not have gotten in simply because it would not have seemed as plausible that you where a geologist.

  9. Maria Brumm wrote:

    Nathaniel, the point is that when someone is deciding whether or not I “look like a geologist”, they’ve already got an idea of what a geologist is supposed to look like – and that’s not racially neutral. Neither are “nerdy” looks.

    Why did you pick a stereotypically African-American outfit as something that a geologist probably wouldn’t wear?

  10. Maria wrote:

    Cherish: No, thank dog! Though since I have thoroughly internalized the “try a little bit of everything” mantra my parents drilled into me as a kid, I will probably be dumb enough to force it on myself at some point.

    Kim: If learning from Moosewood is wrong, I don’t want to be right!

    Sandra: I’m actually a member of the chow mein noodle moiety – I didn’t realize hotdish topping was denominational though!

  11. The Ridger wrote:

    I’m from Tennessee. My mother was born in Columbus but grew up mostly in Texas and South Carolina. We ate green Jello salad and tuna (or sometimes but rarely chicken) casserole made with peas, noodles, and cream of mushroom soup, though we never called it hotdish, just casserole. And it might but usually didn’t have breadcrumbs on top.

    The funny thing is, we ate that Jello – with cottage cheese and canned pineapple chunks – as salad, not desert.

  12. PZ Myers wrote:

    There’s a problem with hotdish and jello salad as ethnic food: it cuts too broadly across the cultural spectrum. I was amazed when I lived in Utah and discovered that the Mormons also traditionally serve a hotdish casserole and green jello salad at potlucks.

    I think what it is is food that is bland and cheap. Generic McFood. What it really needs to be identified with a tradition is a flavor, not the absence of one. Which makes us ethnic Scandinavians real badasses, since who else would think of using lye on their food?

  13. Maria wrote:

    Has a broad cut across the cultural spectrum ever stopped anyone from considering curry an ethnic food?

  14. Cherish wrote:

    who else would think of using lye on their food?

    Ummm…maybe people who have been committed to a mental institution? :-)

    Personally, I prefer peaches to lye. In addition to tasting better, they smell good, especially on top of some kuchen.

  15. Andrew Alden wrote:

    My thoughts on this subject have always been vague. I agree that ethnic stuff is just an “it’s-a-small-world” source of conversation, not a useful white response to deep-seated bias and discrimination.

    I’m an American blueblood, descendant of Pilgrims on one side and Polish Germans and borderline Celts on the other. None of that, except Norman Rockwell trappings and Founding-Father mindsets, has stuck with my family. Having felt colorless during my upbringing, I’m stimulated today by the rise of other voices. They help me see my distinctions, and they remind me that the Enlightenment had some good ideas worth preserving. Put me in the Garrison Keillor brigade.

    But I don’t think geology is based on white ideas. Geology arose as the plaything of leisured gentlemen and minor nobility who nevertheless loved the field. I don’t think the pioneers of geology were slumming (well, maybe Clarence King). I think a love for field geology today comes from populations exposed to the outdoors, a good education and good parental support. That is, it’s a class thing.

  16. Andrew wrote:

    “They help me see my distinctions” please substitute “They help me see what’s distinctive about myself.” Living in a white-minority city (Oakland) is a bracing experience, good for the character.

    Love the photo of the cat!

  17. Nathaniel wrote:

    I’ve seen nerdy people of every race. Although I suppose I can concede that some may consider certain races more “nerdy” in appearance than others (and thusly be more likely to be perceived as a possible geologist). Then again, I can think of a nerdy example from just about every race if I’m working from well known movies and television shows. Who would you pick as the geologist? Steve Urkel or Stefan Urquelle (his cool, non-suspendered, alter ego)? Julius Kelp or Buddy Love(jerry lois circa “The Nutty Professor”)? Zack or Cody (twins characters from “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”)?

    I’ll agree that as far as racial stereotypes go, white and Asian people are perceived as nerdy (even if it isn’t necessarily true)… and because of this, are more likely to be perceived as geologists. Still, if anyone dressed nerdy enough, they could overcome that. That’s really all there was to my point.

    Actually, on second thought. What kind of clothes was everyone wearing? If they where just average every-day street clothes (not too nerdy but rather neutral) then I’ll have to completely agree that you probably gained access simply by racial stereotyping.

  18. Maria wrote:

    Andrew, would you ever tell your neighbors that living next to them is good for your character? I mean, I do take your point, but the fact that living in a majority-minority community is something that stretches white people’s comfort zone is hard to let pass without at least little cynical snicker.

    Nathaniel, we were in average street clothes – jeans and t-shirts, and not nerd shirts, either. Oh, and classic geologist gear is either muddy field clothes, or stuff from REI that hasn’t had a chance to get muddy yet, not suspenders.

    I have certainly met nerdy people of every race – and heard them complain about how hard it is to get people to see them as geeks, too.

  19. Stentor wrote:

    I took a sidetrip to read Alice’s post before I finished yours, and I was all ready to go post something on my own blog, and then I finished reading your post and realized all I needed to do was remember the HTML for making a link.

    My ethnicity is white mid-Atlantic American. I’ve never even *seen* lutefisk. My parents occasionally get books with jokes about Swedish-American culture, because they’re a little closer to those roots, but they all go over my head unless they apply to most white Americans.

  20. Zuska wrote:

    On the racial aspects of nerdhood, may I recommend Ron Eglash’s Race, Sex, and Nerds: From Black Geeks to Asian American Hipsters.

    Regarding jello salad: in southwestern PA, the Patch Hunky version could be red or green, but it had to be embedded with canned fruit cocktail and topped with cool whip. For fancy occasions, sprinkle with chopped walnuts.

  21. Pieter B wrote:

    In the list of hotdish toppings, you left out canned onion rings. Strangely enough, when you Google canned onion rings, the majority of the first page of hits is recipes for or discussion of green bean casserole.

    Signed, He Who Occasionally Cooks Comfort Food For A Sioux City Gal.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *