Here’s the first thing you need to know about strawberry pretzel salad: it definitely is not a salad. At least, not in the way most people think of these days: a pile of leafy greens. This one is a “salad” in the wiggly, congealed 1980s Jell-O delicacies kind of way.
Regardless of the moniker, it’s what’s in the casserole dish that matters. And in this case, that’s a buttery base of crushed pretzels, topped with a layer of Cool Whip with cream cheese and sugar, finished with a tangy slab of fruit-filled strawberry Jell-O. To me, the taste is summertime embodied.
Like many Pittsburghers, I grew up eating this sweet-and-salty dish at every family outdoor gathering. My paternal grandmother insisted on serving strawberry pretzel salad at Thanksgiving and Christmas, too. My Pittsburgh-born-and-raised mom remembers first learning about it at a picnic, then stumbling upon the recipe in a church cookbook. Over the years, she honed her version through trial and error, experimenting with new iterations and cutting back on sugar. (“Making it a little healthier—if you can make Jell-O healthy,” she told me.) No matter what feast the dish appeared in, it was always served as a side, not a dessert; that way, you could have Jell-O with your meal and then a slice of cake or pie, too. In the sugary, halcyon days of the ’90s, there were no rules.
Turns out, strawberry pretzel salad is not just a Pittsburgh thing. Delawareans also stake claim to the dish, as do salad enthusiasts in Tennessee and Utah. It’s unclear exactly when the recipe made its debut, but Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at Heinz History Center, found references to it in Florida and Mississippi newspaper archives dating back to 1975.
Now, the dish seems to be springing from suburban picnic tables into the mainstream. Last year, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams unveiled a Strawberry Pretzel Pie flavor created in collaboration with Dolly Parton as an ode to her sassy-and-sweet persona. The product sold out online in minutes, and resellers listed pints on eBay for prices as high as $1,000. Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, a Pittsburgh-based chain, is scooping a Strawberry Pretzel flavor this summer (available for nationwide shipping) to pay homage to the iconic dish. According to Millie’s co-founder Chad Townsend, the creation has been such a home run that people come in for one scoop and end up buying pints to take home.
The flavor has even found its way into the taps at Delaware-based Dewey Beer Co., where co-owner Brandon Smith had a hunch this draft would be a crowd-pleaser (especially given his brewery’s success with other fruited dessert-style beers). Inspired by the times he’d come across strawberry pretzel salad at picnics in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and in Delaware, he created the gose beer with strawberry purée and vanilla, and some salt to enhance the flavors. The ruby-red, effervescent brew pours with a creamy head reminiscent of the dessert’s middle layer. It’s a limited-edition beer with new batches dropping every so often, so I’m keeping an eye out for the next round.
Though it’s rare to find the salad on a restaurant menu, Tammy Hall, the owner of Main Street Cafe in Madison, Alabama, says she can’t imagine her menu without it. The kitchen staff makes six batches at a time with meticulous care at every step—even slicing it into squares demands special attention. “Not just anyone can cut the pretzel. You have to have certified pretzel cutters,” said Hall. “We want each piece to be pretty.”
You might even find strawberry pretzel salad in places you’d least expect. One poll worker near Pittsburgh brought a smorgasbord of desserts to Election Day polling places. At the Pittsburgh-area Mall at Robinson earlier this year, a podcast called Ya Jagoff hosted its first Strawberry Pretzel Salad Standoff on National Picnic Day to raise money for a local nonprofit called Focus on Renewal, with Pittsburgh podcasters Rachael Rennebeck and John Chamberlin presiding over the contest. Eight eateries and chefs served their interpretations, including one bread-like iteration and another that was an actual pretzel.
Despite the wide variety of newfangled reimaginings on the market these days, the traditional version still stands on its own. And it requires time, care, and attention to detail: the pretzels must be thoroughly pummeled but not sandy, the cream layer must be whipped as light as a cloud and completely spread to the edges (otherwise you’re in for soggy, Jell-O-soaked pretzels), and the Jell-O must be poured at exactly the right moment, then thoroughly chilled.
Jell-O has long been among my family’s favorite fare. My grandma, mom, and I were even interviewed in a 1997 newspaper article about Jell-O’s 100th anniversary, and I’m sharing it with you here if you promise not to make fun of my vest.
Making strawberry pretzel salad as an adult has taught me the lengths to which my mom, grandmothers, and aunts went to ensure every summer picnic would be one to remember. The dish, I think, is timeless—a little salty, a little crunchy, with a sweet aftertaste that transcends the decades.