With the holidays swiftly approaching, our thoughts turn to family dinners and special menus. I’ll bet your Thanksgiving and Christmas tables hold at least one Jell-O salad. Something red with marshmallows and fruit — or green with pineapple and whipped cream — or most likely of all — a cranberry mold. Each of us remembers Jell-O from our earliest years. It’s just always been there. Open the little box, pour the granules into boiling water, and refrigerate. What could be easier?
Five or six years ago for Thanksgiving, I actually bought a fish bowl and created a seascape with blue gelatin and Gummy fish and Gummy worms. It was a laborious task, took a mountain of Jell-O, and the kids all thought it was pretty weird. Yeah, well, that’s me. Every once in a while I still poke holes in a cake and pour Jell-O over it. Chocolate cake with raspberry gelatin is my favorite. How about that time-consuming seven-layer Jell-O? This Thanksgiving we’ll be having our traditional strawberry pretzel dessert.
Before the turn of the century gelatin was a functional food item rather than a treat. Since the days of ancient Greece, jellies and aspics had been used to bind, glaze, and also to preserve foods—like the canned hams we buy today.
To us gelatin is a dessert, but past cooks flavored their gelatins with vinegar, wine, almond extract, and other items to produce a tart product. The foods they glazed were more often meats than sweets.
As long ago as the Renaissance, chefs took pride in constructing elaborate gelatin molds, and no dinner party was complete without at least one jelly construction worthy of the best modern-day wedding cake baker. In the nineteenth century, the most popular mold designs were castles and fortresses complete with doors, windows, and crenellated turrets.
Before this century, the glue needed for gelatin, called collagen, had to be laboriously extracted from meat bones. In the Middle Ages, deer antlers were a popular source of the glue; and later, calves’ feet and knuckles. Housewives in the nineteenth century used isinglass, made from the membranes of fish bladders.
Gelatin-making was a daylong affair, requiring the tedious scraping of hair from the feet, hours of boiling and simmering with egg whites to degrease and clarify the broth, and careful filtering through jelly bags or “filtering stools.” The transparent finished product was then dried into sheets, leaves, or rounds.
In 1890, Charles B. Knox of Jamestown, New York was watching his wife make calves’ foot jelly when he decided that a prepackaged, easy-to-use gelatin mix was just what the housewife needed. Knox set out to develop, manufacture, and distribute the granulated gelatin, while his wife invented recipes for the new kitchen staple.
In 1897, Pearl B. Wait, a NY carpenter and cough medicine manufacturer, developed a fruit-flavored gelatin. His wife, May Davis Wait, named his product Jell-O. Because of the development of the icebox at the end of the century, America was ready for gelatin desserts.
Wait’s product found its way to few American tables before it was bought by the food tycoon Frank Woodward, who was already marketing a coffee and tea substitute named Grain-O. Within a few years the genius in packaging, mass marketing, and advertising turned Jell-O into a household word. The 10 cent carton advertised a delicious dessert that was delicate, delightful, and dainty, and the Jell-O trademark of a young girl with carton and kettle in hand soon appeared on store displays, dishes, spoons, and other promotional articles.
By 1925, Jell-O was a big-money industry. In that year Jell-O joined Postum to form General Foods, today one of the largest corporations in America. By the 1930’s, Jell-O had become a way of life. No Sunday dinner was complete without a concoction known as Golden Glow salad, Jell-O laced with grated carrot and canned pineapple and served with gobs of mayonnaise.
Knox Gelatine tried to discourage the rush toward Jell-O with ads warning shoppers to spurn sissy-sweet salads that were 85 percent sugar. While Knox stressed the purity of their odorless, tasteless, sugarless gelatin, Jell-O highlighted their product’s versatility.
As for the belief that gelatin is good for the hair and nails, the only claim made by either Jell-O or Knox is that their product may do some good for some people’s hair and nails. Sugarfree gelatin is popular among dieters.
In the field of photography, gelatin was introduced in the late 1870s as a substitute for wet collodion. It was used to coat dry photographic plates, marking the beginning of modern photographic methods. Gelatin’s use in the manufacture of medicinal capsules occurred in the twentieth century.
1 package (3 ounces) orange gelatin
1 cup boiling water
1 can (8 ounces) crushed pineapple
1 tablespoon lemon juice Cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt, optional
3/4 cup finely shredded carrots
In a bowl, dissolve gelatin in boiling water. Drain pineapple, reserving juice. Add lemon juice and enough cold water to pineapple juice to make 1 cup; add salt if desired. Stir into gelatin. Chill until slightly set. Stir in pineapple and carrots. Pour into an oiled 4-cup mold; cover and chill until firm. Unmold.
Yield: 6 servings.
In my search I discovered Jell-O shots, Jell-O wrestling, Jell-O spokesperson Bill Cosby, Jell-O Jiggler eggs (the kids stepped on one of these on my carpet one Easter – not good) and of course Jell-O molds.
What is your favorite gelatin memory?
Do you have a standby recipe for holidays?
If you want to share, post your favorite Jell-O recipe for us.