Casting around for the foods that built me, I’d say one corner of my foundation would likely be a bit wobbly.
I think generations of us knew childhoods made of Jell-O. How could any kid resist a sweet treat that also bounced and jiggled? We ate boatloads of gelatin, whether by the giant bowl of it, fruit cocktail suspended in its vividly colored sea of transparency, or the neon squares of it cut up to fit school cafeteria trays.
Some of my earliest kitchen “cookery” was taking on the simple gelatin-making duties (after graduating from Kool-Aid) — the powdered mix, the boiling water, then the cold water or ice cubes to make the whole thing set faster. Soon, I was mastering Jell-O creations, from popsicles to “poke” cake.
My mother was particularly fond of Jell-O and continued to make big bowls of the stuff just for herself when she was living alone, occasionally baking her favorite peach pie or rhubarb cake using it, too.
I grew out of eating gelatin by the bowlful. But its versatile touch in any number of desserts and other treats has had it return my way again and again, from using sheets of clear gelatin I soaked and softened to whip up the homemade marshmallows that cast sticky cobwebs all over my kitchen, to unflavored gelatin providing structure to the old-fashioned eggnog mold I made this past Christmas, a smooth, creamy white vanilla and nutmeg “wreath” filled with fresh berries.
Where do gelatin’s magical properties come from? It may be surprising that most gelatin is a dehydrated powder derived from the collagen found in animal skin, connective tissue and bones, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” by Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press: 1999), and is “important in cookery and the food industry because of this ability to transform large amounts of liquid into an apparently solid substance or gel.” There are now also gelatins made from vegetable sources, such as seaweed.
While jellied dishes were long considered fancy foods for the elite, the commercial flourishing of gelatin came about in the late 19th century, and Victorian-era households were ranked in status by the number of gelatin molds hanging in the kitchen used to transform gelled dishes into artful forms.
The dehydrated fruity powder known as “Jell-O” appeared on the scene in 1897, when it was invented by Pearle Wait, of LeRoy, New York, (where you can visit the Jell-O Gallery Museum today) who also made patent medicines to which colors and flavorings were added to make them more palatable, according to the “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,” edited by Andrew F. Smith (Oxford University Press; 2007). By the 1930s, as kitchens acquired electric refrigerators, a “congealed salad” boom took off, when “about one-third of all cookbook recipes of the time were gelatin based.”
In her book, “JELL-O: A Biography — The History and Mystery of ‘America’s Most Famous Dessert’” (Harcourt, Inc.; 2001), author Carolyn Wyman writes, “For a time, serving Jell-O became a sign that you owned a refrigerator and therefore had money. Refrigerators made Jell-O seem modern and once again, like something of a status symbol.”
Gelatin salads and desserts celebrated a heyday through the 1960s (the slogan, “There’s always room for Jell-O” was coined in 1964 to promote it as a light dessert option), but even throughout the ’70s and ’80s of my youth, entire cookbooks were devoted to Jell-O and gelatin recipes, and molds were sold with the focus of fun, jiggly shapes for kids.
It’s still an ideal ingredient for so many desserts and more. Some sweet, but perhaps lesser-known uses for gelatin are slushy drinks and punch, gummy candies and fancy desserts like charlottes, no-bake cheesecakes and panna cotta, a silky, eggless custard. It also adds a fruity, colorful twist to everything from candy-coated popcorn to layer cakes and even sugar cookies.
Can it be savory? The famously (or infamously) known aspic, a jellied dish filled with different renditions of savories, from vegetables to meats, was all the rage in the 1950s. I remember my aunt bringing both sweet and salty to a simple, tasty spring salad of lime Jell-O filled with veggies, such as celery, green onions and sliced radishes. A few years back at a luncheon, I was served an appetizer of molded crab mousse, creamy, yet firm from unflavored gelatin, served with a tray of crackers. I could have eaten the whole thing.
And whenever I feel the need to revisit its simple charm or culinary magic, there’s always room in my heart for Jell-O.
Tasty Tidbits in Jell-O History
Famed Americana painter Norman Rockwell illustrated one of the first Jell-O cookbooks in the 1920s.
Immigrants were served Jell-O both on the ships journeying to America and at Ellis Island. Many of the new arrivals, having never encountered the jiggly dessert before, left it untouched.
Interesting early Jell-O flavors included coffee, chocolate and cola.
Jell-O traveled into space in 1996 with astronaut Shannon Lucid, who shared it with her Russian cosmonaut colleagues.
From “JELL-O: A Biography — The History and Mystery of ‘America’s Most Famous Dessert’” (Harcourt, Inc.; 2001) by Carolyn Wyman.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
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