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Archive for Sunday, May 25, 1997

S SPLENDOR ENTERS ITS SECOND CENTURY

May 25, 1997

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The colorful and cold gelatin dessert has been pleasing the populace for generations.

Waaaatch it ... oh, you know good and well what you should watch it do!

This is Jell-O, for jiggling out loud!

And "America's Most Favorite Dessert" is celebrating a century of sweetness.

"That's news to me," said one Kansas Union food service employee, laughing. "I didn't realize it was that old."

While it may be difficult to imagine folks at the turn of the century gathering around a bowl of the glassy goo, it's not difficult to see how it has endured since then.

"Kids love it," said Pam Christian, manager of Lawrence High School's cafeteria. "What's that saying? ... 'There's always room for Jell-O.'"

From grade school lunch trays and salads to wrestling rings and shot glasses, Jell-O could at the very least be classified as the most versatile dessert. And according to Kraft -- the maker of Jell-O -- it's also mind-bogglingly popular.

Kraft claims its bouncy prize treat is the most popular prepared dessert in America. As evidence, the Jell-O marketing folks offered some tidbits -- some funny, others downright strange:

  • Every second, approximately 13 boxes of Jell-O are purchased in the United States.
  • Grapefruit, apples and pears will float in Jell-O, but prunes and maraschino cherries won't.
  • President Clinton is passionate about Jell-O salad (presumably as much as President Reagan loved Jelly Bellies).
  • As immigrants passed through Ellis Island, they were often served a bowl of Jell-O as a welcome to America.
  • If the boxes were laid end-to-end, one year's production of Jell-O would stretch three-fifths of the way around the world.

Always in good taste

In Lawrence, its level of likability depends on whom you ask, among other things.

"It depends on the season," said Marilyn Neuenswander, production manager for Kansas and Burge Union food service, describing Jell-O as a moderate seller. "It's more popular in the summer than in the winter."

The unions serves it plain or with fruit, in just about every flavor. And on KU football game days, the cafeteria whips up a special batch of Berry Blue "just for fun," Neuenswander said.

And that's the secret. For some reason, it simply says fun. Those polled in this thoroughly nonscientific survey couldn't help but giggle at the berry mention of Jell-O.

Party hosts and bars mix Jell-O with alcohol for a somewhat more adult dessert treat -- crimson and blue Jell-O shots are no stranger to KU students' festivities.

The Lawrence school district classifies it as a "non-food item," but Jell-O wiggles into the elementary schools' menu about every six weeks, and high school students have the option of choosing it as a side dish every day.

A nutritional zero

Of course, not everyone is wacko for Jell-O.

Susan Krumm, family and consumer science agent with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, acknowledged the dessert's history but stressed its high sugar factor.

"It's been around a long time," Krumm said. "I recall years ago, every Sunday dinner we would have gelatin dessert with some type of fruit or vegetable. You don't see that as much" today.

Krumm often presents programs on sugar for students and adults. Jell-O -- or the nontrademarked "gelatin dessert," as she has to call it during presentations -- is a focus. One cup of regular Jell-O (half of the 22 flavors are available in a sugar-free variety) contains 9 teaspoons of sugar, three times as much as a cup of the most sugar-coated cereal.

"It's just flavored sugar," Krumm said. "The only way to make it more nutritious is to add fruit to it, and vegetables of course. Otherwise it's just empty calories."

The other ingredients? They don't quite measure up to the rumors that always accompany them. (Horse hooves?) Jell-O is merely collagen gleaned from animal tissue that has been rendered, purified, filtered and purified again. The molecules of protein are heated, then catch particles of water as they cool, and presto! You've got Jell-O!

Seeing red

Before the age of Jell-O, cooks toiled endlessly with gelatin, egg whites and eggshells, draining and eventually mixing it with fruit juice.

Jell-O's inventor, Pearl Wait, was a carpenter and cough medicine manufacturer from LeRoy, N.Y. Out of marketing and financial frustration, Wait sold Jell-O (the name was coined by Wait's wife) to his neighbor for a meager $450.

Several years later, in 1906, sales of the dessert chef's fruity friend had almost reached $1 million.

After decades of flavor trial and error, 22 kinds now fill the shelves at most grocery stores. They trace the taste spectrum from Apricot and Island Pineapple to Black Cherry and Berry Blue. Strawberry is the most popular.

A 23rd flavor, Sparkling White Grape, made its debut in April.

And with all those flavors come options: Combine 'em, put marshmallows in 'em, eat it straight, etc.

Sharon Thibodeau, Lawrence mother of three grown children, said she "stayed with all the standards -- I'm not very adventuresome."

Flavors with a green tint usually went by the wayside.

"They liked red," Thibodeau said. "It didn't matter what flavor it was, as long as it was red."

By popular vote, Lawrence High students agree. Christian said they grab 400 to 500 servings of Jell-O a day. Cherry and other red-colored flavors go first. Orange often gets left behind.

Jell-O also has plenty of star power.

Bill Cosby launched his career as Jell-O spokesman in 1987. And the dessert has made cameos in films ranging from Marilyn Monroe's "Some Like it Hot" to Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."

Not even weightlessness can keep this treat down.

In 1996, starting on Easter, American astronaut Shannon Lucid served it every Sunday to her Russian counterparts during her 140 days in space.

It's outta this world.

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