When coverage of the Watergate scandal dominated the newspapers in the 1970s, even the food departments were not spared. Recipes for “watergate salad— a lumpy, mint-colored melange of pistachio pudding, canned crushed pineapple, chopped nuts, marshmallows, and whipped cream that fell solidly on the dessert end of the Jell-O salad spectrum — started popping up 1974†
Less clear was where the recipe came from — or why exactly it was named after the Nixon administration’s criminal schemes (if it had any at all).
Watergate salad wasn’t the only popular pistachio-flavored confection of the 1970s. There was also Watergate cake, which usually required pistachio pudding mix, white cake mix, club soda, eggs, oil, nuts, and coconut. The frosting consisted of whipped topping and… more pistachio pudding mix.
The cake seems to have predated the salad spin-off somewhat, with recipes first to appear in newspapers in 1973. A Pennsylvania woman who received hers from a friend in September 1972, speculated that someone may have called it “Watergate Cake” because the Watergate break-in and the debut of the Royal Desserts pudding-pistachio mix both took place in June of that year.
Other recreational bakers preferred punny theories instead.
“I don’t know where the recipe comes from,” Christine Hatcher told Hagerstown, Maryland’s The Morning Herald in September 1974, “and I don’t know why it’s called ‘Watergate Cake’ unless it’s because of all the nuts in it!”
The nickname also reflected a larger trend that ran throughout the Watergate era: finding humor at the unlikely intersection of federal crime and the culinary arts. During a performance in September 1973, pianist Key Howard joked that a Watergate salad he prepared “didn’t come across as good because it had so many bugs in it.”
Earlier that summer, in the midst of the Senate Watergate hearings, a group of seven friends from Boston actually… published a cookbook with over 100 recipes inspired by Richard Nixon’s long, slow fall from grace. The Watergate Cookbook (or, Who’s in the Soup?), written by “The Committee to Write the Cookbook,” had entrees like “Nixon’s Perfectly Clear Consommé,” “Liddy’s Clam-Up Chowder,” and “Magruder’s Dandy Ly’in Salad”; entrees from “Mitchell’s Cooked Goose with Stuffing” to “Cox’s In-Peach Chicken”; and extras like “Hunt’s Hush Puppies.”
Taken together, it seems that the most likely provenance of Watergate cake comes down to this: An enterprising baker concocted and christened a pistachio-flavored cake in the early 1970s after the biggest crisis that rocked the Oval Office. The recipe changer helped spread it all over the country, and it wasn’t long before someone rediscovered it as a sweet salad.
That said, it’s also possible that Watergate cake existed before burglars broke into Democratic National Committee offices. According to an oft-repeated origin story, the dessert was named so because it was served, in one form or another, at the Watergate Hotel (pre-scandal). While there is none proof to support this theory, we do know of another Watergate cake — or, to be more precise, Water Gate cake — that was once served next door.
In 1941, about two decades before construction began at the Watergate Complex, restorer Marjory Hendricks open the Water Gate Inn where the Kennedy Center now stands. Until it was condemned in 1966, the inn welcomed guests with a menu or Pennsylvania Dutch fare – and “Water Gate Ice Box Cake” with chocolate sauce.
Because chocolate didn’t appear in the Watergate cakes and salads that came later — and ice cream cakes traditionally include waffles or cookies in addition to whipped cream — it’s not a perfect match. But ice cream cakes sometimes do Involving fruit and pudding, and the fact that the inn’s Water Gate cake predates Nixon’s presidential term could at least shed light on the genesis of the Watergate Hotel theory.
Be that as it may, the Watergate salad undoubtedly overshadowed its cake-like kin strengthens according to the recipe printed on Jell-O’s pistachio pudding mixes in the mid-1980s. Although it was labeled “Pistachio Pineapple Delight” and required no marshmallows, its resemblance to the classic Watergate salad was undeniable. 1993, according to Kraft, the recipe was revised to include marshmallows and renamed “Watergate Salad”. A version of the story claims the update happened because people kept asking the company for its Watergate salad recipe, but Kraft “can’t substantiate that” or some other “urban [myth] about the name change.”
You can find the Jell-O recipe for Watergate salad – including marshmallows –here†