The Food of the Watergate

The Watergate building is a storied structure, built on the shores of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and known most of all for being the home and namesake for the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. In his new book about this iconic building, Joseph Rodota examines every aspect of the building, from its origins, its architecture, its residents, its scandals (plural!), and yes, the food that was prepared and served there.

In The Watergate, Rodota writes about where the Watergate Salad came from. Fittingly, there’s even a slight air of mystery around this innocuous treat.

Watergate Salad was prepared in a mold using pistachio pudding mix, Cool Whip, miniature marshmallows, walnuts and a can of crushed pineapple, and placed in a refrigerator for at least an hour to set. Watergate Salad could be served either as a side dish or as a dessert.

Kraft’s version of the story behind Watergate Salad goes something like this: General Foods released Jell-O Pistachio Flavor Instant Pudding and Pie Filling in 1976 and circulated a recipe for Pistachio Pineapple Delight. A food editor in Chicago renamed this recipe Watergate Salad and printed it in her column. In 1985 or 1986, General Foods put the recipe for Pistachio Pineapple Delight on packages of Jell-O Pistachio Flavor Pudding. In 1993, Kraft Foods, the new owner of the Jell-O brand, added marshmallows to the recipe and changed the name on the box to Watergate Salad.

But an investigation by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1996 failed to identify the Chicago-based food editor who allegedly renamed the recipe. Camille Stagg, a food editor at the Chicago Sun-Times around that period, said the Watergate Salad recipe was “rather unappealing” and therefore unlikely to have been picked up by any of the top food editors in the city at the time, who were generally focused on covering the growing interest in healthful eating—cutting sugar and salt, eliminating preservatives and cooking with natural, organic ingredients.

In early 1977, a reader sent the recipe for Watergate Salad to Hazel Geissler, a staff writer with the St. Petersburg Evening Independent, and asserted it came from “a restaurant in the now well-known complex.” A radio station in Nashville, Illinois, reported the sous chef at the Watergate Hotel created the Watergate Salad “while in a hurry to create something for the buffet.”

A spokesman for the California Pistachio Commission was unable to settle the controversy. The recipe for Watergate Salad, he said, didn’t even require real pistachios—just pistachio pudding mix, “which doesn’t always contain real pistachios.”

The recipe for Watergate Salad remains popular, according to Kraft Foods. During a typical holiday season, more than fifty thousand people search online for it. Cooks in North Carolina search for the recipe more than any other state.

There’s no way we could let this passing reference to a salad — made in a Jell-O mold no less! — go unheeded. So, we took it upon ourselves to recreate this “famous” salad. Please, no chuckling at our efforts; and yes, one of us borrowed an actual Tupperware Jell-O mold from her mom to make this. Here’s the precise recipe we followed.


  • 1 (4 ounce) package instant pistachio pudding mix
  • 1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple with juice, undrained
  • 1 cup miniature marshmallow
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 3⁄4 cups non-dairy whipped topping, thawed


  1. Stir pudding mix, pineapple with juice, marshmallows and nuts in a large bowl until well blended.
  2. Gently stir in whipped topping.
  3. Pour into mold and refrigerate one hour or until ready to serve.

Obtaining Pistachio Jell-O Pudding was quite the challenge in New York City; we ended up ordering the pudding packets online. Once the pudding arrived, the salad took a mere five minutes to whip up and pour into the mold. Here’s our finished result (no snickering, please).IMG-3995

It sliced up so easily, and the texture of this dish is actually quite pleasing — the crunch of the walnuts and the pineapple stand up nicely against the pudding and marshmallows. It’s incredibly sweet, and by no means is this salad a health food. Setting that aside, it was fun to reach back into recent history and come up with this crowd-pleasing recipe.

Have any of our readers ever made or eaten Watergate Salad before? It was completely new to us. Lucky us: we have enough mini-marshmallows to top our hot chocolate (there’s a snowstorm right now in New York City).

We leave you with a link. Food & Wine Magazine recently wrote a fascinating piece on this history of (you guessed it) food and wine at the Watergate. Give it a read for more insights into the food culture that went along with the entertaining in the building.

And, just in case you wanted a second helping of Watergate Salad… enjoy!

watergate salad


One Response to “The Food of the Watergate”
  1. gee says:

    This is a terrific piece of food history including product development, as you note. Over time, the name and recipe was modified, not by Kraft but by journalists and home cooks. Today, there are many versions of both a Watergate Salad and even a Watergate Cake.

    But why Watergate salad? Home cook folklore said the name stuck because “the newly popular salad was a frequent addition at neighborhood gatherings where the talk was still about the Watergate affair, and, like the Nixon administration, the salad was full of marshmallows, bananas, nuts and covered up with fluff.”

    As part of Watergate’s 50th anniversary celebration, we tested a lot of the cake recipes. Here is the one most favored:


    1 (18.5 ounce) package white cake mix (any brand)
1 (3.5 ounce) package instant pistachio pudding mix
    1/2 cup pistachios, chopped (substitute walnuts or pecans if desired)
    3 eggs, unbeaten
3/4 cup oil
1 cup lemon-lime carbonated beverage (substitute ginger ale or club soda)

    Combine cake mix, pudding mix, nuts, eggs, oil and lemon-lime in a bowl. Beat until well-blended (about 4 minutes). Pour into a greased and floured bundt pan (or 13×9 or 12×9 pan). Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cool. Spread with Cover-Up Icing. Top as desired with chopped nuts (same as in cake), crushed pineapple, cherries.

One large or two small containers frozen whipped topping (ie., Cool Whip)
1 box (3.5 ounce) instant pistachio pudding mix
1-1/2 cups milk

    Toppings (about 1/2 cup each):
    chopped nuts (same as used in cake), crushed pineapple (drained), maraschino cherries

    Beat whipped topping, pudding mix and milk together until smooth, thick, well blended. Spread on cooled cake. Top as desired with chopped nuts (same type used in cake), crushed pineapple, cherries.

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