In the late 1950s, Jell-O released a new line of “quick quick, good good, busy-day” instant pudding desserts—with the help of a classic television icon and a very strange recipe.
But first, let’s take a tour of the magazine where the recipe comes from, to give us some sense about the everyday world of the housewives who might’ve cooked it up. Today we’re looking at the August 1957 edition of Family Circle magazine, which at the time was one of the country’s leading magazines, with a circulation of 4 million families. I came across it on eBay, and with cover stories like “Breezy-Easy Summer Meals,” “Ten Women I Admire,” and “How to Talk to Your Daughter About Chastity Before Marriage”—how could I resist?
Let’s dig in.
This issue’s entire food section is devoted to “Breezy-easy Summer Meals—and So Good.” There are recipes for barbecues, sandwiches, desserts, and, curiously, hot soups. There is also a spread dedicated to “refreshingly crisp, gloriously colorful salads,” which includes that regurgitation of color you see on the magazine’s cover. This “Fruit Salad Royale” includes: fresh pineapple with a sugar dip, watermelon-ball-and-blackberry kabobs, prune-stuffed prunes topped with walnuts, honeydew wedges with sliced ham, pitted apricots stuffed with softened cream cheese, cheese, and crackers. It’s accompanied by a Lime-Honey Dressing (1/2 cup salad oil, 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, 2 tablespoons honey, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a dash of cayenne).
There is also a recipe for Southern Ham Mousse, which begins with canned cream of chicken soup and ends with garnishes of lime and jellied cranberry sauce wedges. Oh, and it’s served with mayonnaise.
The magazine also includes sections on home decorating and housekeeping, fashions and needlework, beauty and health, and childrearing—all the kind of material you’d expect of a 1950s women’s magazine.
What I find particularly interesting, though, are the articles written by men. And there are a lot of them. There’s a feature called “Ten Women I Admire,” written by minister Norman Vincent Peale, author of the seminal The Power of Positive Thinking. (Fun fact—Peale officiated the wedding of Donald Trump and his first wife Ivana in 1977. Make use of that information how you will.) There’s “Harry Evans’ Diary,” where the author talks with actor Gary Cooper about the pressures on women in Hollywood to preserve their appearances and stay youthful. There’s “Just Like A Man” by Byron Fish, a humorous essay about his experience camping with his wife and three sons. I think the humor is supposed to come from the fact that, out on the campground, the man has to do the child-rearing. Hilarious!
Even when a woman is doing the writing, there is often a male presence involved somehow. The cover story “How to Talk with Your Daughter About Chastity Before Marriage” is written by a woman, but the article is preceded by not one but two stamps of approval from men, one a reverend and the other the editor of The Christian Herald. And the reverend can’t help but emphasize that “the role of the father in this matter must be underscored. […] Father represents an authority and respect for moral law far more effectively than Mother.”
But it’s 1957. So this is all just par for the course. The magazine’s editor and managing editor are both men, and in fact Family Circle wouldn’t get its first female editor for nearly another 30 years. Gay Bryant served as the magazine’s editor from 1985 to 1986, and—another fun fact—is widely credited for coming up with the concept of the “glass ceiling” for working women.
Anyway. Just an observation. Times have changed, more or less. Back to funny stuff.
Personal odor must’ve been a hot issue back in 1957, because the magazine opens with three consecutive ads for hygiene products, including one terrible story (above, left) about a teenage girl named Polly who was ignored at her school dance because of her garbage breath.
The ads in this magazine were all-around excellent. I see you, mayonnaise-filled tomato cups:
And there’s this “breezy-easy summer shortcake” made with Reddi-Wip and Bisquick, being deftly assembled before a pair of dead-eyed, blankly smiling children:
Seriously, though, would you want to be left alone in a room with these children?
The ad that caught my eye, though, was this one for Jell-O Ice Cream Pie. It promised a pie that required “no freezing” and “keeps firm in your refrigerator!”
In the 1950s, Jell-O released its new line of instant puddings. It was advertised to wives as a “quick quick, good good, busy-day” dessert that needed no cooking. It was available in seven flavors: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, lemon, coconut, butterscotch, and banana. I have two of them in my collection—the box for the strawberry flavor certainly looks its age, but the coconut cream is in better shape, and I’d like to think that’s what the box looked like when housewives plucked it from the kitchen cabinet to prepare that night’s dessert.
Jell-O produced two television advertisements (that I know of). The first one is…kind of bleak:
I prefer the second one, because it (a) doesn’t make me want to walk off a bridge and (b) has the amusing line, “See how quick and easy: just add it to cold milk, and beat it up!”
To promote the new puddings, Jell-O developed a recipe for an “Ice Cream Pie,” which was advertised in women’s magazines like Family Circle. And in 1958, a young Johnny Carson demonstrated the Jell-O Ice Cream Pie on his daytime television game show Do You Trust Your Wife? (renamed later that year to Who Do You Trust?).
(The entire episode is really worth a watch—see it here. The entire episode is sponsored by Jell-O Instant Pudding, and the advertising is weaved throughout. There are additional vintage commercials, and a contestant demonstrates his “potato stretcher,” which is more or less a 50s version of a vegetable spiralizer. Plus Johnny Carson attempts to participate a fencing duel, which results him being chased around the set by an angry German with a sword. What’s not to like?)
The advertising for the Jell-O Ice Cream Pie all heavily emphasized how easy it was to prepare. “Easy-as-pie ice cream pie!” exclaimed the print advertisement. But was it any good?
Well shucks, let’s find out.
Easy-As-Pie Ice Cream Pie
1. Ice Cream.
Blend together lightly in bowl one point vanilla ice cream and one cup of milk.
2. Jell-O Instant Pudding.
Add package Chocolate Instant Pudding. Beat until just mixed…one minute.
3. A baked pie shell.
Pour at once into 9-inch pie shell. Let stand in refrigerator about one hour.
Jell-O Instant Pudding is the magic that makes this ice cream pie smooth and “cut-able.” Keeps up to 24 hours in your refrigerator. And how those Jell-O Instant flavors blend with ice cream!
Try these pairs for a beginning! You’ll discover other dream pie combinations yourself!
Jell-O Strawberry Instant pudding with Strawberry Ice Cream! Jell-O Lemon Instant Pudding with Pineapple Ice Cream! Jell-O Vanilla Instant Pudding with Pistachio Ice Cream!
Source: Family Circle magazine, August 1957, page 52
I love strawberry-flavored anything, so I chose that variation: Jell-O Strawberry Instant Pudding with Strawberry Ice Cream. Jell-O still makes a strawberry instant pudding, but for some reason it’s not available in stores and not really available online, so I used a Trolls-branded Strawberry Cupcake instant pudding instead.
It really was as simple to prepare as Johnny promised: let the ice cream thaw to a nice mushy texture and combine with milk, then stir in the Jell-O. Pour into your prepared pie crust, then pop in the fridge for an hour. And voila:
This was like the dessert equivalent of a magic trick. It was wet but sliceable. It was firm enough to hold its shape but also soft and creamy on the fork. It tasted like ice cream but also pudding. The flavor was a little artificial, but to be fair, that could’ve been due to my substitution of the Trolls Strawberry Cupcake pudding. My fault. It made it hard to judge the true taste of the pie.
Well then, might as well be thorough and make all the other flavors.
These were all the other suggested flavor combinations from the advertisement: Lemon Instant Pudding with Pineapple Ice Cream (well, Pineapple Coconut because that’s all I could find), Chocolate Instant Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream, and Vanilla Instant Pudding with Pistachio Ice Cream (I used Pistachio Instant Pudding ’cause I can’t read).
So, how did they taste?
Does anyone remember the scene from Hook—the 1991 one with Robin Williams—where Peter and the Lost Boys are sitting down to the banquet of invisible food? A famished Peter looks on as the Lost Boys gobble at nothing, wondering out loud, “What’s the deal? Where’s the real food?” His friends encourage him to use his imagination, and like magic, the tabletop transforms into a luxurious feast, including bowls of creamy, fluorescent-hued goop…which ultimately become the weapon of choice when the banquet devolves into a food fight.
So, yeah, this pie reminded me of that.
In taste and texture and color, it was like something out of a children’s movie. The artificial sweetness of the pudding, combined with the already-sweet ice cream, was a little too much for me.
Except for the chocolate flavor. That was dope. Like a chocolate silk pie and pudding and ice cream all wrapped into one.
But then again, it may be a matter of taste. I brought these pies to a family dinner and they were a hit. Everyone had a different favorite flavor, and went back for seconds.
So as far as vintage recipes go, this one would actually be worth remaking. It might be a gimmick, but that’s half the fun. The other half is that it’s totally customizable. Make it with butterscotch instant pudding and chocolate ice cream. Or cookies and cream instant pudding with cookie dough ice cream. Or vanilla instant pudding with mint chocolate chip ice cream. Let your imagination go wild. It literally takes five minutes to make, and it comes with a history.
(If you make this recipe, put your photos on social media and tag me @lettucemousse!)
PS—since this is something that folks might actually make, I did a wee bit of recipe testing on these. These pies keep remarkably well at room temperature for a few hours, about the length of a dinner, but any longer than that and they start to get weepy (especially if it’s warm). The advertisement says they keep for 24 hours in the fridge, but mine kept a few days longer than that. They also freeze well—just move them from the freezer to the fridge to thaw.