Gung ho for Jell-O

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

It is arguably America's most famous dessert, so famous and so typically American, in fact, that it was served to immigrants entering Ellis Island. Ten boxes of it are sold every second. The Smithsonian Institution has even sponsored a conference on it.

Know what it is?

It's Jell-O, of course.

And sales are about to peak, as they do every year around Thanksgiving. At our house, the holiday wouldn't be the same without my mother-in-law's cranberry Jell-O mold, as essential an ingredient to our festivities as the turkey or the pumpkin pie. Like many households, however, once the holidays are over we all but forget about Jell-O. That's shortsighted, I have concluded.

I came to this realization several weeks ago after my wife underwent a tonsillectomy, a procedure for which post-operative care demands only soft and soothing foods. Thus, while she recuperated there was lots of Jell-O at our house -- in a wide variety of flavors, colors and shapes. As a result, we are taking Jell-O more seriously these days, for we found it can be, in the words of early ads, "delicate, delightful, delicious and dainty." This really shouldn't have surprised us, because jelled desserts and aspics were once all the rage. The Victorians loved them. They were typically served on silver trays and in cut-glass dishes. The embodiment of elegance, they were normally found only on the tables of the wealthy, mainly because only they could afford to hire someone to go through the rigors of preparing the stuff, a labor-intensive and, frankly, unappetizing process before the invention of Jell-O changed all that.

Prior to the availability of Jell-O, if you wanted to make a gelatin salad or dessert you first had to obtain a couple of calves' feet, then scald them, remove the hair, split them and remove the fat from between the claws, and boil them for six or seven hours, periodically removing the scum that would accumulate on top. Then you'd have to strain the liquid, skim off the fat, boil some more, and purify the mixture with egg shells. Only after further straining and skimming would you be ready to add sugar and flavorings. As one early cookbook author put it, the process took "everything a cook has in her repertoire and beyond."

That all changed in 1894 when Charles Knox invented unflavored gelatin powder, the most well-known brand of which still bears his name. He launched what cookbook author Jean Anderson calls "the Age of the Molded Salad" when he sponsored a recipe contest.

Then on the heels of Knox, Pearl B. Wait, a cough syrup manufacturer from Le Roy, N.Y. (now home of the Jell-O museum) made it even easier to create gelatin salads and desserts when he came out with a prepackaged product containing not only powdered gelatin, but sugar and flavorings as well. Now all the home cook needed to make spectacular molded gelatin dishes was boiling water. Wait's wife, May, named the product Jell-O.

But it wasn't until the turn of the century that the product began to jell with the American public. In 1899, Wait sold the formula to a fellow townsman, Frank Woodward, for a mere $450. Woodward used extensive advertising and a Jell-O recipe book to parlay the product into a million dollar a year business by 1906. Before long his food company was renamed the Jell-O company and later it became the foundation of the General Foods Corp. Today the Jell-O brand is recognized by fully 95 percent of Americans.

Not a bad record for a food that is rumored to be made out of horse hooves. (Actually, it's now made out of "hide trimmings," which sounds even worse, but it's so purified that the FDA doesn't even consider it a meat product.)

Somewhere along the way, as Americans became increasingly sophisticated eaters, Jell-O lost its cachet and became perceived as a concoction suitable only for children and hospital patients and welcome only once a year or so at the holiday table. Perhaps it's time to reconsider that view. And why not? With the right touch Jell-O can add shimmer and sparkle to any menu.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Fridays and at 11:59 a.m. Saturdays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to

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