There's Always Room
Detail from The New Jell-O Book of Surprises. CHF Collections.
Jell-O is having a mini-moment. Its cheerful, jaunty colors can be found in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Weddings, and even a spread in Vogue. As described in the WSJ article, a Jell-O mold competition was held a few weeks ago at an art space in Brooklyn, where the jiggly concoction soared to new creative heights (sometimes literally) in the hands of 23 contestants. Their artistry was judged on creativity, aesthetics, structural/sculptural ingenuity, edibility, and the best use and showcase of Jell-O. A working Jell-O toy piano? They had that. Jell-Obama? Yes, Mr. President, in your honor. According to its creators at the Gowanus Studio Studio Space, the competition was intended to restore some glory to what was once an American icon.
Molded gelatin has, in fact, a surprisingly long history. Elaborate “jelly moulds,” so called in Victorian England, became popular with the well-to-do in the 19th century, but the difficulty of producing and working with gelatin made its joy unknown to most. In 1845 the American industrialist Peter Cooper, most famous for his steam locomotive, obtained a patent for powdered gelatin, which was easier to manufacture and incorporate into foods. Forty years later the patent was sold to enterprising couple who added fruit flavors to the powdered gelatin and christened the product “Jell-O;” they, in turn, sold the rights to the Gennesse Pure Food Company in 1897. The brand grew over the coming decades; in the early 1900s Jell-O salesmen distributed free gelatin cookbooks to encourage consumers to use their products, fostering a steady growth that was buoyed by resurgence in the popularity of aspics (savory dishes made with flavored gelatin) in the 1930s. Jell-O launched a number of new flavors in response to this trend, including “Italian Herb” and “Seasoned Tomato.” By the 1960s, Jell-O reflected the tastes of a generation. There was even a song written to commemorate one especially psychedelic-sounding delight: “Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise.”
Jell-O works well as a mold because gelatin, a mixture of peptides and proteins extracted primarily from the collagen in animal bones and connective tissues (Jell-O desserts are the bane of vegetarians everywhere), exhibits a molecular form that rearranges itself as it is manipulated. When hot water is added to powdered Jell-O, its molecules separate from each other. When the Jell-O cools enough to “set,” they come back together in a slightly looser form than the powdered solid. This is what makes Jell-O jiggle. In between these stages, the liquid Jell-O can easily be poured into molds, resulting in the elaborate rings and towers that brought Jell-O to its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today Jell-O might not have quite the kitschy caché of, say, cupcakes, but its advocates are a mighty faction. A tower of Jell-O mold websites and blogs exists online, and antique Jell-O molds are still popular at flea markets and online auction sites. Given all the press I wonder how long until another state joins Utah in crowning Jell-O the “official state snack?”
Gigi Naglak is Outreach Coordinator for CHF’s Eddleman Institute. She and Program Associate Jen Dionisio recently presented the history and chemistry of Jell-O at the Philadelphia Science Festival’s Science Carnival on the Parkway.
Useful Waste [Distillations]
Jell-O Mold Competition [The Gowanus Studio Space]