Watergate Salad

A gritty, hard-hitting exposé of covered-up recipe history.

Watergate salad by watashiwani, on Flickr

Watergate salad is a mixture of crushed pineapple, miniature marshmallows, whipped topping, nuts, and pistachio instant pudding mix. The name is derived from the Nixon-era scandal involving a 1972 break-in at the Watergate office complex, leading to Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is avoiding the misinformation that’s out there. Most sites say something like this: “Kraft (or really, General Foods, which merged with Kraft in 1990) introduced a recipe in 1975 with its new pistachio-flavor pudding mix and someone called it Watergate salad and then people called Kraft for the Watergate salad recipe and that’s how it happened.”

I don’t suppose you’d take my word for it that this explanation of the origin is wrong?

More sources? Fine, let’s take a look around. Among the strange things people have said about this recipe:

“In 1975, while Watergate was still in the news, Standard Brands, the company who was marketing the ‘Royal’ brand of pudding mixes, gelatins and cheesecake mixes, launched an instant pistachio pudding mix (it’s now marketed by Jel-Sert.)” — Examiner.com, “Political recipes with mysterious histories

Sorry–Royal Instant Pistachio Pudding had been on the market since 1966–see the image to the right? That’s an ad from the May 19, 1966 edition of the Gettysburg Times.

Maybe you were thinking of Jell-o’s mix? Much closer, but the timeline isn’t quite right. Then again, I can’t put that on the author, because Kraft–current owner of Jell-o–doesn’t seem to have the timeline right, either.

“We developed the recipe for Pistachio Pineapple Delight,” says Pat Risso of Kraft Corporate Affairs. “It was in 1975, the same year that pistachio pudding mix came out.” Quoted in The Richmond Times Dispatch, “The Proof is in the Pudding; Crashing Watergate,” Louis Mahoney.

 
As foodtimeline.org points out in a Washington Post cite, Jell-o didn’t debut its instant pistachio pudding until March of 1976, after it saw a run on Royal pistachio pudding to make Watergate cake.

But to be fair, it’s just one spokesperson from the 1990s. It’s not like Kraft is out there claiming it invented this recipe right now or anything…

“Originally called Pistachio Pineapple Delight, this recipe was created in the 1970’s to celebrate the introduction of Jell-o Pistachio Instant Pudding.” Kraft Canada, Watergate Salad

 
… really?

Really, Kraft?!?

Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that I can find no record of a pistachio pineapple delight recipe. Let’s put aside the fact that would be an exceptionally strange name for a recipe that doesn’t have chocolate, since pistachio delight was the name of a flavor of ice cream that had chocolate ice cream and pistachios in the 1950s and 1960s, after a soda fountain sundae from the 1930s and 1940s.

Let’s just focus on this: if this pistachio pineapple delight recipe was invented to accompany a product that launched in March of 1976, then why were so many versions floating around in 1973 and 1974? For example, this recipe in the November 5, 1973 edition of the Oil City, Pennsylvania Derrick?

Pistachio Salad

1 Box Pistachio Instant Pudding, 1 Envelope Whipped Topping Mix (such as Dream Whip), 1 Can 16 ounce Crushed Pineapple, 1 Cup Miniature Marshmallows.

Whip the topping mix stiff, following the instructions on the envelope. Mix the pudding according to the directions on the box, but use only 1-1/2 cups milk. Fold these two ingredients together. Add the crushed pineapple (well drained) and the marshmallows. Pour into a 11-3/4 by 7-1/2 inch by 1-3/4 inch dish. Chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours. May put chopped nuts and maraschino Cherries over the top.

Arlene M. Powell
RD 3, New Bethlehem

(Click to expand more examples of this recipe before the name attached, or don't, if you get the picture.)

Or these versions, from the October 28, 1974 edition of the same newspaper:

Pistachio Salad

1 package Royal Instant Pistachio pudding mix, 1 no. 202 can crushed pineapple, 2 cups miniature marshmallows, 1 large Cool Whip.

Blend together and chill. May be served immediately. Serve on lettuce leaf. This may also be served as a dessert with cookies.
Mrs. Albert Kuhn
8 Glenwood Drive
Oil City, Pa. 16301

Pistachio Salad

1 box pistachio instant pudding, 1 No. 2 can crushed pineapple (undrained), 1 cup miniature marshmallows, 1/2 cup coconut, 1/2 cup maraschino cherries (sliced), 1/2 cup nut meats, 1 small tub Cool Whip, 1 small can (drained) mandarin oranges.

Put crushed pineapple in bowl; stir in pudding mix. Add marshmallow, coconut, cherries, nuts, and stir, then add Cool Whip and mix well. Put in 8x8x2 inch pan, refrigerate for 2 hours and serve.
Mrs. Eric Lindberg
738 Buffalo St.
Franklin, Pa. 16323

The earliest mention of the words “Watergate Salad” that I could find might explain how the name got attached to a pre-existing recipe. It’s from the syndicated column of John Keasler, where he’s cracking some jokes about Nixon’s price controls over food and the White House’s austerity measures.

From the copy in the April 5, 1973 edition of the Thomasville (Georgia) Times Enterprise:

Several leading publishers are vying for rights to the White House Non-Cookbook, showing how to serve leftovers.

In Washington, 28 dinner parties so far this month have featured yesterday’s cottage cheese.

The Watergate Salad is said to be catching on… a very popular kind of icebox salad, and easy to make. No matter what the ingredients of a Watergate Icebox Salad, you just put the lid over them and stick them in the back of the icebox.

 
Get it? You cover it up and stick it on ice (in the sense of “to postpone dealing with something”). Watergate salad does, after all, look like something you stuck in the back of the fridge and forgot about.

As for the Watergate cake, that was an existing recipe, too. Here’s an example from the August 2, 1973 edition of the Spirt Lake (Iowa) Beacon from a column titled Between Us Girls (B.U.G.):

Linda (Mrs. Butch) Moritz shared a recipe the other day and I will pass it on to you. It will sound rather familiar, but has just that different something that makes it unique.

Club Soda Cake

1 pkg. yellow cake mix
1 pkg. pistachio pudding mix
1/2 cup cooking oil
1 cup Club Soda
4 eggs
1/2 cup nut meats

Mix in order given and bake 50 minutes in 350 degree oven in angel food or bunt tube pan. Eat as pound cake with butter or with whipped cream.

— B.U.G. —

 
As for the name, there’s a mention of a “Watergate tape cake” in the February 8, 1974 edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette at a school event where students portrayed different presidents, but there’s no indication that’s the same thing (another example of a recipe listed in the piece was LBJ hamburgers, which isn’t a thing).

Other than that, the earliest mention of Watergate cake that I can find comes from the September 5, 1974 edition of the Hagerstown, Maryland Morning Herald:

A taste of Watergate (click to expand)
Attorney Norman I. Broadwater, Democratic candidate for state’s attorney in the September 10 primaries, gets a sample of campaign ammunition from Ms. Christine Hatcher during a session of informal politicking. The ammunition? It’s called “Watergate Cake,” and it’s the newest thing on political and not-so-political menus.

Ms. Hatcher, of The Book Store, got the recipe from a friend who got it from a friend who got it… “I don’t know where the recipe originated,” she grins, “and I don’t know why it’s called ‘Watergate Cake’ unless it’s because of all the nuts that are in it!”

But the cake, she points out, is the kind that “once you’ve sampled it you can’t stop at just one slice.”

If you want to serve a little “Watergate” at your house, here’s the recipe:

Watergate Cake

1 box white cake mix
1 box instant pistachio pudding
3 eggs
1 cup cooking oil
1 cup club soda water
1/2 cup nut meats

Mix the first five ingredients in an electric mixer at medium speed for two minutes. Fold in the nut meats. Pour into a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan, and bake at 350 degrees for 45-55 minutes.

Frosting

1 box instant pistachio pudding
1 envelope Dream Whip
1-1/4 cups cold milk
Mix according to directions on Dream Whip box. Spread on cooled cake.

 
Which creates a slightly confusing situation, because the Watergate name doesn’t appear to attach to the salad until 1975.

So for those who are keeping score, here’s the whole timeline:

1966: Royal instant pistachio pudding debuts.
1972: Break-in at the Watergate.
1973: Recipes appear under the names pistachio salad and club soda cake.
1974: Nixon resigns. Cake renamed Watergate cake.
1975: Salad renamed Watergate salad.
1976: General Foods introduces Jell-o instant pistachio pudding mix, takes credit for everything like it’s the freakin’ mayor’s wife.

 
From the box of F.J. from Sun City, Arizona. Some cards suggest a family history in Missouri and Kansas.

Watergate Salad

1 cup small marshmallows
1 large can crushed pineapple, drained
1 large cool whip
1 cup chopped nuts
Lastly add 1 package of pistachio pudding mix.

Mix well. If it seems too thick, add some pineapple juice just before serving.

Recipe from the kitchen of Hilda Hoadley.



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