This salad named after a scandal has been traced back to Kraft and Helen Keller.
When President Richard Nixon covered up the 1972 break-in at the Watergate Complex, pistachio pudding was probably the last thing on his mind. But after the scandal broke and Watergate fever swept the United States, one sweet, Cool Whip–based dessert gained an unlikely name: Watergate salad.
The recipe for this sweet treat is simple: Combine Cool Whip, chopped pecans, mini marshmallows, canned pineapple, and dry pistachio pudding mix, then top with cherries and serve. While it’s popularly associated with Kraft’s instant pistachio pudding mix, which debuted in the mid-1970s, this may not have been a Kraft original. There were already popular brands of instant pistachio pudding on the market, and whipped topping–based fruit salads were an old standard by this time. Intriguingly, in 1925, Helen Keller even published a recipe for “Golden Gate salad,” a similar combination of cream, nuts, and pineapple, though it lacked the pistachio pudding.
Recipes for pistachio pudding salad appeared in newspapers in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the dish took on the moniker “Watergate salad.” (Around the same time, recipes for a “Watergate cake” also appeared.) While the true reasons for this renaming remain mysterious, the attention-grabbing gambit certainly succeeded, and Watergate salad has graced Middle American potluck tables ever since.
Watergate salad is one of many Cool Whip–based American sweet “salads,” including snickers salad, cookie salad, frog eye salad, and ambrosia. Alternately side dish or dessert depending on their placement on the potluck table, these sugary concoctions are particularly popular in the South and Midwest, especially Minnesota, where church gatherings are incomplete without one of the desserts collectively known as “fluff” (as distinguished from marshmallow Fluff, of course).
As for the politically charged moniker, there are many metaphorical reasons for the renaming. Was the sloppy salad a metaphor for Nixon’s messy end? Was the green of the salad a sly intimation to “follow the money”? Or is the sweet side dish just criminally delicious? The world may never know the truth of this fluffy salad’s name, but that shouldn’t come in the way of eating it.