Circus Peanut Jell-O: Sweet taste of post-WWII Midwest

Today’s guest blogger is Jennifer Blackledge, who used to work with my husband in the professional recruiting section of Ford Motor Company. They’ve stayed in touch since leaving the company. Jen is also a poet.

I have always envied people who made interesting, taste-of-the-old-country dishes handed down from their great-great-grandma (like some of the incredible recipes on this blog!). While my grandmothers were cheerful cooks who produced voluminous amounts of food on a daily basis, the origin of that food could usually be traced to the side of a Jell-O package or a soup can label.

I confess: I am a Midwesterner, pale and freckled, with 99 percent of my genetic and cultural heritage traceable through England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, central Illinois, the farmlands of northern Michigan, and the foothills of Appalachia. Yes, hotbeds of world-renowned culinary innovation all. Needless to say, I grew up happily consuming large quantities of bland, hearty food. Salt and pepper were the only spices on our shelf. In fact, I’m fairly sure I never tasted garlic until high school. We really prefer Stove Top Stuffing to homemade.

Living in the southern suburbs of metro Detroit, both as a child and now, most of my friends talk about their busia’s homemade pierogies and kielbasa, the closely guarded secret ingredients of the family pasta sauce, or getting together with all their cousins to make Hungarian kifli for the holidays. Other than my Great-aunt Margaret’s sloppy joe recipe made with Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo soup, I had very few special “family” recipes. But of those few, my favorite would have to be Circus Peanut Jell-O.

I know – everyone thinks I’m kidding. In the world of cuisine, is there anything more ridiculed than Jell-O? Rarely encountered anywhere these days except hospitals, your great-aunt’s dinners, or in the prep phase of a colonoscopy, Jell-O falls into the same category as Wonder bread, Velveeta, and bologna sandwiches.

The Jell-O of the candy world

Now consider Jello-O’s equivalent in the candy hierarchy. Circus peanuts: those vaguely banana/chemical flavored, orange, oversized “peanuts,” with the consistency of stiffened memory foam and made of pure sugar. What self-respecting kid spends allowance money on circus peanuts when there are Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Sour Patch Kids, and Milky Ways to be had?

Put the Jell-O and circus peanuts together, throw in canned pineapple and a big dollop of Cool Whip, and what do you get? Usually, derision. We’re talking the Rodney Dangerfield of desserts here. But trust me; if you have a child or grandchild assisting you in the kitchen, this is a fun and memorable dish to make together.

My Grandma Blackledge lived on a farm in northern Michigan and she always let me assist her in the barn and in the kitchen. (Don’t worry, we washed our hands in between.) I think it’s safe to assume she got the Circus Peanut Jell-O recipe off the side of a circus peanuts bag. She assigned the best steps to me: dissolving the Jell-O, tearing the circus peanuts into thirds, then pouring boiling water on them (with a helping hand) to watch them melt. It seemed like one big, fun science experiment.

While my own daughters love to help make it, they are somewhat ambivalent about the finished product. Luckily, I’ve developed a fan base among my sister-in-law, nieces, and nephews.

A springtime treat

The bright orange color and pineapple are festive and spring-y, so I tend to make it around Easter or Mother’s Day. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I could eat an entire batch by myself. You’d expect it to be overwhelmingly sweet, but the pineapple’s tartness balances it perfectly.

Note: the circus peanut is an elusive quarry, long relegated to the “senior citizen section” of the candy aisle, usually not too far from the cellophane bags of Starlight mints, French burnt peanuts, and off-brand licorice ropes. I’ve seen them on the candy rack in the Bob Evans’ lobby, or in the store at the front of Cracker Barrels. If all else fails, there’s the Internet!