It didn’t take long for Renee Dobbs to come up with a recipe when her Sunday supper club chose “retro” as the theme for its upcoming family table. She immediately thought of her mother’s Coca-Cola Salad, a combination of cherry Jell-O, Coke, pecans, crushed pineapple and canned cherries often served with ham at holiday dinners.

Coke and Jello

“This salad is about as retro and Southern as you can get,” says the Atlanta-born Dobbs, who writes about food, wine and gardening in the South on her blog, Magnolia Days. “Retro because of the popularity of gelatin salads back in the '60s, '70s and early '80s. Southern because of The Coca-Cola Company and Georgia being the leader of U.S. pecan production. I could not think of a better recipe to share.”

The Coca-Cola Salad post turned out to be one of Dobbs' most popular blog entries, drawing 20,000 hits and a stream of comments fondly recalling community potlucks and fancy gelatin molds.

Dobbs said her mother believes she got the recipe from an elderly member of her church years before her children were born. “It was all about sharing recipes back then,” she said. “More than likely, the lady brought it to a church potluck, and my mother asked her for the recipe.”

The combination of Coca-Cola and Jell-O dates at least as far back as 1931, when The Greater Jell-O Recipe Book published recipes for Jell-O Dessert, a mix of Coke, raspberry Jell-O, lemon juice, chopped nuts and dates; and Salad Novelty, which called for lemon Jell-O, Coke, salt and water.

The idea of mixing Coke and Jell-O also might stem from the 1950s, when homemakers were experimenting with all sorts of ingredients to put in their gelatin salads, notes Lynne Belluscio, director of the LeRoy Historical Society in LeRoy, N.Y., the birthplace of the brand and home of the Jell-O Gallery Museum.

Coke and Jello

"When given a box of Jell-O, people wanted to create something with it,” Belluscio said. “They thought, 'What can I put into it that would make it delicious?''”

Corned beef, horseradish and cream cheese were other ingredients mixed with Jell-O with successful results. Coca-Cola and other carbonated beverages stood out because Jell-O traps their bubbles as it congeals, creating a unique, champagne-like presentation, Belluscio explained.

Jell-O was created in 1897 by LeRoy, N.Y. carpenter and cough-syrup manufacturer Pearle Wait, just 11 years after Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola in 1886. Both brands were quick to embrace advertising as a powerful marketing tool, and both featured Norman Rockwell illustrations in their early-20th century ad campaigns.

While there is no record of any official advertising linking the two brands, Coca-Cola has featured photographs of gelatin molds alongside bottles of Coke, baked ham and other special-occasion dishes in its advertising, including a 1958 calendar and a TV tray from 1962.

Jell-O and Coke are also both synonymous with old-fashioned gatherings of family and friends, when special treats were brought out and shared, notes Coca-Cola Archivist Ted Ryan, who recalls his own Southern childhood in which his grandmother served congealed salads with cherries and grated carrots.

Renee Dobbs, for her part, still serves her mother's Coca-Cola Salad (recipe below) at family gatherings, never straying from the original recipe despite being an accomplished cook.

"I don’t tinker with it. I like to stay very true to recipes," she says. "I want them to be continued on so their true flavor carries through."

Coca-Cola Salad Recipe

  • 6 oz. cherry-flavored Jell-O (not sugar-free)
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 10 oz. Coca-Cola
  • 1 can (14.5 to 16 oz.) red tart pitted cherries in water
  • 1 can (8 oz.) crushed pineapple
  • 1 cup chopped pecans (raw or lightly toasted)
Place Jell-O in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over it and stir until dissolved. Stir in the Coca-Cola. Refrigerate mixture until partially firm, about 30 minutes. NOTE: Check and stir every 3 to 5 minutes. You want it thickened but not set.

Place the cherries and juice in a food processor fitted with a knife blade, or in a blender. Pulse or blend a few times to lightly chop the cherries.

Once the Jell-O mixture has thickened, stir in the chopped cherries and its juice, pineapple and its juice and pecans. Pour into a gelatin mold. Refrigerate until set. Remove salad from the mold by inverting onto a serving platter. Serve cold.

Note: If you do not have a gelatin mold, then you can leave it in the large bowl. Invert onto a serving dish when ready to serve.