The remarkable thing about Cool Whip is that despite all the engineering that went into it, it’s not very useful. It’s not healthy, low in fat or calories, dairy-free, or better-tasting than whipped cream.
Of course, none of these things was very important in 1966, when the stuff was invented. The point is that it’s convenient; there’s no whipping required, and it will keep indefinitely in the freezer or the fridge.
Despite its lack of redeeming qualities, Cool Whip remains strangely enticing. People who should know better still find themselves stealing spoonfuls out of the tub, and those who have an excuse not to know better have given it a permanent place in American home cooking. Cool Whip has become a staple in American suburban and rural kitchens — not just in its natural state, if it can be called that, but as an ingredient in everything from mousse to various “salads.”
What is Cool Whip? It is a fluffy dessert topping somewhat resembling whipped cream in texture and taste, but with an intriguing marshmallow note and a higher viscosity that would probably make it nice to shave with.
Whipped cream and Cool Whip are similar in that they both contain air. But unlike whipped cream, which is made of cream, vanilla, and sugar, Cool Whip is made primarily from water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and high-fructose corn syrup.
A few years ago, Wired magazine ran an informative and entertaining rundown of the other ingredients that Cool Whip, in the common refrain of packaged foods, contains 2 percent or less of. These include (along with the usual thickeners and artificial flavors) polysorbate 60 (which, according to Wired, is a primary ingredient in condom lube) and sorbitan monostearate, also found in hemorrhoid cream. Mmm!
As I mentioned before, Cool Whip is not, in fact, non-dairy, even though most of its ingredients don’t come from a cow. It contains small amounts of skim milk, light cream, and sodium caseinate, which presumably make it richer and creamier, but also make it inappropriate to serve to vegans atop a cruelty-free chocolate cake, or to Jews after a chicken dinner.
Cool Whip is a product of the 1960s, when convenience was key and chemicals were cool. It was invented by William A. Mitchell, the food-science wizard who also created Tang, Pop Rocks, and quick-set Jell-O, according to writer Mark Steyn, who eulogized Mitchell in the Atlantic after the former’s death, at age 92, in 2004. (Steyn, as it happens, is also a right-wing polemicist. Such is the rich and varied life of a freelance journalist.)
Steyn wrote of young William’s humble beginnings as a farm boy in Minnesota at the dawn of the 20th century. You have to respect a guy who worked picking beans from age eight, survived the Depression, put himself through college, sustained third-degree burns in an agricultural-lab explosion, and went on to give the world Cool Whip. Talk about a legacy.
In addition to coming pre-whipped and being invented by Mitchell, Cool Whip distinguishes itself with its durability, as demonstrated by the entrepreneur and writer Jonathan Fields in an illustrated blog post titled “Horrifying 12-Day Cool Whip Experiment.”
To teach his daughter about processed foods, Fields left a bowl of Cool Whip Lite (like the original, but with less oil and more corn syrup) out on the kitchen counter for 12 days. It looked exactly the same at the beginning and the end, changing only in consistency. “It had begun to harden into a plastic-like substance,” Fields wrote, to the point that he was able to draw on it with a magic marker.
I’m sure many of you might declare, “I’m not eating whipped topping you can draw on with a marker.” But I’d like to point out that you can also draw on a carrot with a marker, and a carrot can also remain unchanged for 12 days.
I’m not that concerned with Cool Whip’s health properties; that’s not why I eat dessert. I pretty much only eat Cool Whip when I am forced to by the demands of research — otherwise, I usually choose stuff like heirloom-apple crisp with organic real whipped cream instead. But sometimes, you just have to go big.
For example, if you mix Cool Whip with three kinds of Jell-O, you have yourself something called Crown Jewel Dessert. The dessert features chunks of Jell-O suspended in a pastel-pink base of Cool Whip and more Jell-O, like mortadella. Aptly named, Crown Jewel Dessert both glistens like gems and is the whipped topping’s most regally shameless expression.
As I was mixing quivering neon-bright rubbery cubes into a huge bowl of Pepto-Bismol-pink goo, I vacillated between delight and disgust. I channeled Betty Draper and Dr. Seuss. There was a certain dangerous thrill in thinking about putting this science experiment into my digestive tract.
The final product is a shining, quivering loaf of fruity glee. It tastes like nothing more than three flavors of Jell-O with an underlying chemical creaminess, which is given more strength with an added dollop of Cool Whip on top. Its main appeal is its looks, texture, and shock appeal, but it goes down surprisingly easily. I served it to my health-conscious officemates, and it was gone in minutes.
Other common places to find Cool Whip are in ambrosia salad, socializing with pineapple, canned oranges, shredded coconut, and marshmallows, and in strawberry pretzel Jell-O salad, which isn’t a salad so much as a strawberry cream pie with a crushed pretzel crust.
Admittedly, all this stuff seems out of place, even archaic, in a time when — mercifully — simple, unprocessed food reigns supreme. But, really, what’s wrong with having a little fun in the kitchen and mixing it up now and then? And of course, while some of us are busy waxing poetic about our heirloom-apple crisp, plenty of people (Paula Deen included) are still Cool Whipping-up strawberry pretzel salad without a trace of irony or guilt.
That said, I’m not sure if I will ever make Crown Jewel Dessert again, mostly because none of my friends would eat it. But it makes me feel better about the world knowing that such things are still out there, evidence of a short but brave moment in dessert pioneering.
Shoshanna Cohen is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. As a runner, hedonist, and culture geek, she is interested in food as fuel, as pleasure, and as language, sometimes all at once. Find her on Twitter (@shoshannac) or read her blogs about food and drinks (Socktails) and about running (Nice Shorts).
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An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite