Tara Cox considers herself an adventurous cook. But even she wasn’t sure about SpaghettiOs Jell-O.
“It smells like cat vomit,” the 45-year-old tells The Post, looking doubtfully at her plate of gelatin-encased pasta.
Every few months, Cox, a magazine editor who’s fascinated with retro American dishes, gets together with friends for a midcentury potluck party. She combs through old recipe books — a standout is “Dishes Men Like,” published in 1952 — and scours the internet, where her fellow recipe obsessives share vintage Betty Crocker recipe cards and post videos of tuna trapped in aspic. Then, she gets to work making mysterious meat molds, jiggly Jell-O salads and gloopy mayo-marshmallow casseroles.
Are they delicious? Almost never. But they look amazing.
“That’s the whole point,” says the East Village resident. “They look impressive, they’re fun, and even if they’re bad, they bond everybody and you can laugh about it.”
That’s why she brought an “olive loaf Christmas tree” — an edible sculpture bedecked with the controversial cold cut, as well as sausages, cheese and pickles — to her family’s Yuletide festivities last year.
Although the olive loaf was “very polarizing,” the tree “was beautiful,” she says — and most of her relatives came around.
Meanwhile, Bonnie McDowell, 39, believes that nothing says festive like gelatin.
“For a special occasion, having something like a Jell-O mold is such a statement piece,” says McDowell, who runs a vintage food blog called Quaint Cooking. The Jacksonville, Florida, resident, who works in retail, plans on pulling out all the retro stops this season. She’s bringing a cheese ball and “definitely some kind of Jell-O dish” to her sister’s Christmas dinner.
“It’s such a rush,” says McDowell of crafting these vintage dishes. “No matter what it’s going to taste like, just propping it up and realizing you didn’t mess it up somehow is so satisfying.”
Chicago-based Mike Dikk, who runs an Instagram account called @retrofoodghoul, also has some ambitious holiday-food plans. The one he’s most excited about? A “cranberry sauce candle” — with a real wick he’ll set on fire.
“I’m really into it,” says the 40-year-old administrator, who initially began collecting vintage recipe cards for the photography and began cooking from them a year ago. The flaming gelatin recipe, he says, is from a Hellmann’s mayo ad in a 1960s food magazine.
While these mayonnaise-y molds may sound déclassé today, historian Adrienne Bitar says that in the 1950s and ‘60s — with the emergence of the middle class — they represented the height of sophistication.
“After World War II, there is this emphasis on glamorous living and being able to entertain friends in your own home,” says Bitar, author of “Diet and the Disease of Civilization” (Rutgers University Press).
“You see glimmers of it before — think about margarine or these other processed foods — but the idea that a middle-class homemaker could invite friends over and have a beautiful display of high-tech, elegant cuisine was very attractive. It was a symbol of class . . . because not everyone could afford refrigeration, or a freezer.”
The 1970s brought about a health food craze, and laboratory-like foods no longer looked so appetizing — until the internet brought them back.
“These foods are really great for Instagram,” says Bitar.
That’s true of the Watergate salad Tim Steinhelfer made for Thanksgiving last month. The 33-year-old law clerk says his pistachio-pudding with canned pineapple and maraschino cherries garnered lots of love on Instagram.
But — in a rare triumph for retro foods — his family actually liked the taste of it, too.
“They ate it up,” says the Columbus, Ohio, resident, who modified his great-grandmother’s recipe. For Christmas, he’s taking on even more throwback dishes, like Duchess potatoes, wedge salad, a chocolate Yule log, sugar cream pie and “a cocktail weenie Christmas tree . . . if I get really ambitious.”
Kamryn Harmeling, a musician and fine artist who works under the name Kam Ryn, agrees that some of these kooky-looking foods get a bad rap. The 24-year-old Gowanus resident says that her love of so-called bad midcentury food — like her mom’s tuna noodle casserole, made with Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese and canned tuna — is genuine. She even made a retro, gloopy green bean casserole for Thanksgiving this year.
“I grew up eating these dishes,” says Harmeling. “They remind me of my grandma. They’re not gourmet, but they’re tasty, and I really like them.”