It shimmers. It bobbles. It wriggles so unpredictably that it seems guided by its own personal laws of physics.
But once you accept the mystery qualities of this odder-than-odd substance, one indisputable fact remains: Jell-O, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, is still America’s most beloved dessert.
Kids adore it. They poke at it, they tug at it, they make the most disgusting sounds as they suck it into their mouths and swirl it around.
Adults, on the other hand, love to mock Jell-O. After all, they’re far too sophisticated for such stuff. But after the laughter dies down, those same adults retire to their kitchens, where they do the most outlandish things with it: they sculpt it, they whirl it, they mix it into cakes and salads.
They’ve even found ways to turn Jell-O into an alcoholic confection - something Pearl Wait probably never imagined when he concocted the idea of adding fruit flavoring to granulated gelatin.
“We are the birthplace of Jell-O,” says Lynne Belluscio, director of the Historical Society in LeRoy, N.Y., near Rochester. “This is a Norman Rockwell kind of town, so there couldn’t have been a more perfect place for it.”
Its father was Wait, a construction man who dabbled in patent medicines. The name was his wife’s idea, inspired perhaps by another product manufactured in LeRoy: Grain-O, a coffee substitute later renamed Postum.
But Wait didn’t find the success he’d hoped for selling Jell-O door-to-door. In 1899, he sold the business for $450 to Grain-O’s owner, Orator Woodward, who understood the value of marketing. Within eight years, Woodward had built Jell-O into a $1 million enterprise. (He would sell it to Postum Cereal Co., later General Foods, in 1925.)
Today, Kraft Foods, which took over General Foods in 1989, claims that Jell-O - with 99 percent brand name recognition - is the best-selling prepared dessert in America.
“Jell-O didn’t start as a kids’ thing,” says Gerard Meyer, Jell-O’s senior brand manager. “It was a time-saver, a convenience for busy homemakers.”
At the turn of the century, Jell-O was regarded as a classy product - and healthy, too, with advertising suggesting that it “greatly facilitates digestion and conserves the body’s nitrogen.”
By the 1930s, Jell-O was seen as a thoroughly modern dessert, an ideal complement to the newly popular refrigerator. During World War II, using Jell-O was a simple way to combat food rationing, which limited the supply of such dessert staples as eggs and cream.
Then came the 1950s, and Jell-O was no longer considered a mere food stretcher. Its basic colors were the perfect building blocks for desserts and salads that were as visually startling as they were dietetically adventurous. The 1980s saw a new playfulness, with the advent of the Jell-O Jiggler, a recipe that uses less water so you can actually pick up Jell-O without it falling apart.
In the Kraft Test Kitchen in White Plains, N.Y., Jell-O continues to evolve in the ‘90s.
“Jell-O is starting to become more respected again as a product that adults use and enjoy,” says Mary Lee-Brody, who’s in charge of turning Jell-O ideas into Jell-O realities. “I consider myself a foodie, and I made a Jell-O cranberry fruit mold for Thanksgiving.”
While Lee-Brody won’t discuss the specifics of Jell-O’s future, Meyer notes that Jell-O is being cautious not to be perceived solely as a kids’ product.
Sparkling white grape, the new “limited edition” anniversary flavor (on sale from April through June), is being billed as “The Champagne of Jell-O.”
“We’ve also added flavors like cranberry and mango,” Meyer says. “These are products that, if not totally adult, are at least all-family.”
Of course, the search for new ways to use Jell-O isn’t limited to the Kraft kitchens. People all over the continent continue to push Jell-O’s boundaries.
A Portland art gallery hosts an annual Jell-O art show called Jell-O-Rama. A recipe titled “Slyders in Suspense” recently won a White Castle hamburger cooking contest, with ingredients that included a dozen burgers and several boxes of Jell-O.
The Internet is filled with Jell-O sites, including Jellophile (www.geocities.com/NapaValley/ 2022/jello.html), which features scores of recipes from the “Nasty Spider” - a spider-shaped cake that spews green Jell-O - to dozens of alcoholic concoctions.
Not everyone adores Jell-O, though. To some, it represents mega-business and the plasticizing of America. It is, after all, a major moneymaker for Philip Morris - Kraft’s parent corporation, the company that owns Marlboro.
“I picked my name at random out of a notebook,” says Jello Biafra, former leader of the seminal punk band Dead Kennedys. “Just the way the two images collide in the mind: the completely plastic, nonfood culture of America versus the kind of squalor inflicted on the rest of the world.”
And then there is Jell-O itself.
Gelatin seems benign enough. It’s nothing but molecules of protein that have been heated and then, as they cool, trap tiny particles of water. But where does that protein come from? The rumors are always spoken of in hushed terms: that Jell-O is made of horse’s hooves … or worse.
Actually, the truth is worse. Or at least it sounds worse.
The source of the protein that makes up Jell-O is “hide trimmings,” animal tissue that is rendered, purified, filtered and then purified again, leaving a simple protein called collagen.
The gelatin that is the building block of Jell-O is so purified that the FDA doesn’t regard it as a meat product. Likewise, all but the strictest vegetarians find Jell-O acceptable.
And anyway, to most Americans, Jell-O’s roots are not a problem. To them, Jell-O means dessert and fun and family.
“When I think of Jell-O, I think of two things,” says 30-year-old Frank Donaldson, a New York City advertising executive. “First, I think of the ads, and then I think of making Jell-O with my mom and my sister when I was little, stirring it and watching the steam rise out of the bowl. It’s really a nice memory.”
3 (4 servings each) packages blue gelatin
9 ounces red cinnamon candy or small speckled jelly beans
New fishbowl (1/2-gallon capacity) or large, clean glass bowl
A few small pieces of kale or purple endive, washed and patted dry
Gummi Fish candies
In a medium-sized bowl, prepare the gelatin according to package directions, omitting the cold water step. Instead, use cold water mixed with ice cubes - about 1 cup cold water and enough ice cubes to equal 1-1/2 cups per package. Stir until the ice melts.
Meanwhile, make a layer of “gravel” by placing the cinnamon candies or small speckled jelly beans in the bottom of the fishbowl or glass bowl. Slowly pour the prepared gelatin over a knife blade to keep the liquid from disturbing the gravel.
Place in the refrigerator and chill until slightly thickened. Place kale or purple endive into the gravel, using tongs or a wooden skewer. Place the Gummi Fish into the thickened gelatin.
Yield: 12 (1/2-cup) servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 167 calories, trace of fat (2 percent fat calories), no cholesterol, 38 milligrams sodium, 35 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams protein.
Sunset Yogurt Salad
From “New Joys of Jell-O,” by Kraft Foods (Publications International).
2 (4-serving) packages or 1 (8-serving) package orange- or lemon-flavored gelatin
2 cups boiling water
8 ounces plain or pineapple-orange-flavored yogurt
1/4 cup cold water
8 ounces crushed pineapple in juice, undrained
1 cup shredded carrots
Carrot curls, curly leaf lettuce or canned pineapple slices for garnish, optional
In a medium-sized bowl, dissolve the gelatin in boiling water. Place 1 cup of the gelatin in a small bowl; chill until slightly thickened. Stir in the yogurt. Pour the mixture into a serving bowl. Chill until set but not firm.
Meanwhile, stir cold water into the remaining gelatin. Add pineapple and carrots. Chill until slightly thickened. Spoon over the gelatin-yogurt mixture.
Chill until firm, about 4 hours. Garnish if desired with carrot curls, lettuce leaves and pineapple slices.
Yield: 10 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 97 calories, 1 gram fat (9 percent fat calories), 3 milligrams cholesterol, 42 milligrams sodium, 16 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams protein.
Jell-O Ribbon Salad
From Renee Ansley, Athens, Ga.
1/2 teaspoon margarine
5 (4 servings each) packages gelatin, assorted flavors such as berry, strawberry, lime, orange and lemon
5 cups boiling water, divided use
2 packages unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup sugar
2 cups milk
16 ounces sour cream
2 teaspoon vanilla
Lightly grease an 8- by 8- by 2-inch glass baking dish or 6-cup mold with margarine; set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix 1 package flavored gelatin with 1 cup of boiling water. Stir until completely dissolved. Pour into the prepared dish and chill in the refrigerator until set.
Meanwhile, soften the unflavored gelatin in cold water. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and milk. Bring to a slow boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and add softened unflavored gelatin, stirring to thoroughly combine. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Whisk in the sour cream and vanilla. Mix well until smooth.
When the first layer of flavored gelatin is set, pour about 1 cup of the cream mixture over it and allow to set.
Repeat layering process with remaining gelatin flavors and remaining cream mixture, using about 1 cup of the cream mixture for each layer. You’ll end up with with 5 different layers of flavored gelatin and 4 layers of the cream mixture.
Yield: 12 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 312 calories, 10 grams fat (29 percent fat calories), 23 milligrams cholesterol, 101 milligrams sodium, 42 grams carbohydrate, 15 grams protein.
Lemon Souffle Cheesecake
From “New Joys of Jell-O,” by Kraft Foods (Publications International).
Nonstick cooking spray
1 graham cracker, crushed, or 2 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs, divided use
1 (4-serving) package sugar-free, low-calorie lemon gelatin
2/3 cup boiling water
1 cup 1-percent low-fat cottage cheese
1 (8-ounce) tub light cream cheese
2 cups thawed light or fat-free whipped topping
Spray an 8- or 9-inch springform pan or 9-inch pie plate with nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of graham cracker crumbs on the sides of the pan; set aside.
Place the gelatin in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the boiling water until the gelatin is completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Pour the mixture into a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add cottage cheese and cream cheese. Blend or process on medium speed until smooth.
Pour the mixture into a large bowl and fold in the whipped topping to completely incorporate. Pour the mixture into a prepared pan and smooth top. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon of graham cracker crumbs around the outside edge. Refrigerate 4 hours or until set. (Remove sides of springform pan just before serving.)
Yield: 8 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 112 calories, 6 grams fat (52 percent fat calories), 11 milligrams cholesterol, 300 milligrams sodium, 6 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams protein.
2-1/2 cups boiling water or boiling apple juice
2 (8 servings each) packages or 4 (4 servings each) packages flavored gelatin
In a large bowl, stir together boiling water or juice into gelatin until completely dissolved, about 3 minutes. Pour mixture into a 13- by 9-inch baking dish.
Refrigerate 3 hours or until firm. Dip the bottom of the pan in warm water for about 15 seconds. Cut into decorative shapes with cookie cutters all the way through gelatin or cut into 1-inch squares. Lift from the pan and serve.
Yield: About 24 pieces.
Note: Recipe can be halved, using an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish.
Nutrition information per serving: 27 calories, trace of fat (3 percent fat calories), no cholesterol, 12 milligrams sodium, 4 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams protein.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Some fun facts from first century of Jell-O There were four original flavors of packaged Jell-O: strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon. Today, there are 22 regular flavors, from apricot to watermelon, along with 11 sugar-free flavors. Among the former flavors no longer in production: cola, celery, chocolate, coffee and apple. An average 1,134,239 packages of Jell-O are purchased in the United States each day - the equivalent of 13 boxes every second. Salt Lake City ranks first in Jell-O consumption per person among major metropolitan areas; Seattle is sixth. Jell-O’s advertising spokespeople over the years have included Jack Benny, Andy Griffith, Ethel Barrymore, Jackie Cooper, Kate Smith and Bill Cosby. In the 1936 recording of “A Fine Romance,” Bing Crosby sang: “You take romance, I’ll take Jell-O.” Grapefruit, apples and pears will float in Jell-O; prunes and maraschino cherries will sink. When hooked up to an EEG machine, Jell-O demonstrates movement virtually identical to the brain waves of a healthy adult human being. To make “Jell-O shots,” substitute liquor (no more than 100 proof) for one-fourth of the cold water called for in the Jell-O recipe, pour into shot glasses and refrigerate until it gels.
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