Watergate Salad: A Fluffy Green Bite Of Washington, D.C.'s Past : The Salt Thirty years ago, if you walked into a deli in Washington, D.C., you might find a dish called "Watergate Salad." And it's not bad. Soft. Tangy. You can taste why this caught on. And why it went away.
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Watergate Salad: A Fluffy Green Bite Of Washington, D.C.'s Past

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Watergate Salad: A Fluffy Green Bite Of Washington, D.C.'s Past

Watergate Salad: A Fluffy Green Bite Of Washington, D.C.'s Past

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Thirty years ago, if you walked into a deli or supermarket in Washington, D.C., you might find, sitting in the refrigerator case, a dish called Watergate salad. Today, it's harder to find. The salad's disappearance has less to do with a political scandal and more to do with America's changing tastes, as Gabe Bullard of member station WAMU reports.

GABE BULLARD, BYLINE: We often think of salads now as leafy and green. And while the Watergate salad is green, there are no leaves in sight. It's made of pistachio pudding mix, a can of crushed pineapple, whipped topping, nuts and marshmallows. Those ingredients place the dish's origin firmly in the era of Jell-O molds and unusual aspics. The name, as you may guess, places it in the 1970s, at the height of the Watergate scandal, so named for the office, apartment and hotel complex in D.C.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Five people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

G BULLARD: After President Nixon resigned in 1974, the nation was reeling. And so we ate cake. Newspapers spread the recipe for a green confection called Watergate cake.

JOSEPH RODOTA: The cake predates the salad.

G BULLARD: Joseph Rodota is the author of a book about the Watergate complex. Watergate cake was appearing in print about a month after Nixon resigned, if not before. People joked that the pistachio cake with whipped cream icing was called Watergate because it had a cover-up and was full of nuts. Sorry, but this kind of joke was easy to hear in the mid-'70s. The country had Watergate fever. The complex, once the height of luxury, became a tourist attraction. The Watergate cake name could've come from a food editor, a home cook or, as Rodota says...

RODOTA: It could've been a Democratic partisan who wanted to make sure the Watergate name lived on.

G BULLARD: There were rumors the dish came from the Watergate's restaurant, but there's no support for that. The origin is unknown, attributed at times to a friend of a friend in newspapers. The salad recipe started showing up one or two years later, first as pineapple pistachio delight. It likely took on the Watergate name because it was similar to the cake. By 1976, people were eating Watergate salad across the country. I called my mom, who was in rural Missouri at the time, and asked her about it.

JEANNE BULLARD: I'm Jeanne Bullard, Gabe's mom. I remember Watergate salad. It was one of those popular dishes somebody usually brings to a get-together.

G BULLARD: A gelatin dessert named after the preeminent scandal of the Nixon administration may scream '70s, but the real roots of the Watergate salad run to the turn of the century. Susan Benjamin researches historic candy and sweets.

SUSAN BENJAMIN: You had a remarkable thing happen - instant gelatin. The gelatin enabled them to make things like marshmallows and other fun foods that you would take at picnics, who - that you would give for desserts.

G BULLARD: Benjamin found similar recipes dating as far back as 1913, which conveniently is the same year Richard Nixon was born. These dishes used sugar and gelatin and other ingredients that were new or hard to come by. With Benjamin in the studio, we brought out a bowl of fluffy green Watergate salad for a taste.

BENJAMIN: Straight out of the Nixon age. You can taste a kind of a pistachio-esque (ph). It's pistachio-esque.

G BULLARD: And it's not bad - soft, tangy, sweet but not too sweet. You can taste why this caught on and why it went away.

BENJAMIN: We are so fixated on eating right and not eating sugar and not really letting ourselves have fun.

G BULLARD: Just as the Watergate complex went from luxury to crime scene, the ingredients of the salad - marshmallows, pudding, canned pineapple - stopped seeming cutting-edge. The nation, in politics and palate, moved on.

For NPR News, I'm Gabe Bullard in Washington.

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