Alas, my visions of vintage fashion and family life might be set a couple decades too early, as pistachio pudding mix, one of the main ingredients, didn’t come out until 1975. Apparently Kraft, the maker of said pudding, came up with the recipe under the moniker of “Pistachio Pineapple Delight.” There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how the name “Watergate” came about. Some think it was a new name for Kraft’s recipe invented by a Chicago food editor, others say the whole thing was concocted by a sous chef at the Watergate Hotel, and still others say it’s just an association with the presidential scandal that occurred around the same time as the salad’s height in popularity. Wikipedia says all these things and more.
At any rate, I find “Pistachio Pineapple Delight” to be a little too literal for me. I prefer the name Watergate for the tasty green concoction—mysterious, with absolutely no hints as to what the ingredients are. And Watergate was such a mystery to me as a child, my eyes peering at it over the edge of my grandparents’ dining room table, sitting so unnaturally pastel in its crystal bowl, waiting until such a time as I would be allowed to glop it on my plate. Did it contain water chestnuts, and that’s how it got its name? Wasn’t Watergate also a kind of crystal, and maybe that’s the kind of crystal bowl it always lived in on my grandma’s table, and maybe that’s why it’s called Watergate? It was an endless source of mystery and speculation to me. Not only the name, but the ingredients that made it so delicious as well.
Older, more experienced eaters would probably have no problem guessing the contents, were they to take one of those Top Chef-style blind tasting tests. This is probably the easiest, least-involved dessert I’ve ever made, with no ingredients that can’t be found in a typical American grocery store. There are many versions of the recipe to be found on the web and in cookbooks of grandmas across the country, but the basic ingredients are always the same, and I will be using the version copied down from my Granny’s kitchen. For me, Watergate will always be associated with summer birthday parties, Christmas dinners, and New Year’s Eve smorgasbords at her big house in the Indiana countryside, surrounded with warmth, laughter, full bellies, and family as I contemplate the possible contents of the mysterious green fluff.
1-12 oz. can of crushed pineapple, in juice
1 package of instant pistachio pudding (the 4 serving size variety)
1-8 oz. container of Cool Whip
2 C. mini marshmallows
1/2 – 1 C. chopped pecans
1 C. shredded coconut
1. In a large bowl, combine the pineapple (juice and all!) with the instant pudding mix and the Cool Whip. Mix until combined—I find a rubber spatula is well suited to this job. It just somehow seems to keep the Cool Whip nice and fluffy!
2. Fold in the mini marshmallows (you can add more or less to your taste) and the chopped pecans. My recipe originally called for walnuts, but mine were rancid (this seems to be a problem in my kitchen, but at least I remembered to check this time!), and so I used pecans instead. You can try anything you want here. Maybe pistachios would be good?
3. Lastly, add the shredded coconut and use the spatula to fold until well combined and the dessert is a nice, uniform seafoam green color. The coconut was my own addition to my grandma’s recipe, because I love coconut and will eat it in pretty much anything. You can use more or less, or leave it out all together according to your feelings on the subject of coconuttery.
Like I said, easy-peasy and oh-so-yummy. Are there any strange retro recipes lurking in your family cookbooks? As a kid, what were your favorite dishes brought out only on special occasions? Hit the comments below and let us know!