I recently received a box of recipes from an aunt who had moved to a retirement community and was divesting herself of most of her accumulated possessions. I was happy to have the family recipes the box contained, however the most intriguing items in the box were a collection of Jell-O recipe booklets from the 1920s and 1930s.
I have never regretted that the American infatuation with Jell-O waned before I reached adulthood. By the time I began cooking, Jell-O had reinvented itself as a pudding company and hired Bill Cosby to jolly up the company image. By comparison, my associations with Jell-O gelatin are mostly negative since my childhood encounters with Jell-O occurred only in the context of sickness and death.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, dutiful mothers were still serving their sick children Jell-O, as if it contained some magical property that would cure. I was interested to note in the Jell-O recipe booklets that the Jell-O marketing people had gone to great lengths in the 1920s and 1930s to promote their product as the appropriate food for convalescence. In a tract that would spur the FDA into action today, the copywriters quote a "well-known" but unnamed physician who reported prescribing Jell-O for his patients during the 1909 flu epidemic.
Then there was Jell-O salad, which I knew as funeral food. When someone in the family died, neighbors and women from church promptly appeared at the door with lime green Jell-O salads in which everything from grated carrots to pineapple chunks to cottage cheese had been suspended. I suspect that lime became the designated funeral flavor in small-town Kansas because cherry, strawberry and orange were too cheerful.
Most of the recipes in these booklets are illustrated with color drawings of molded Jell-O salads, the better to sell the sets of aluminum molds advertised in the back. Back then you could pay for your molds (60 cents for a set of seven) with postage stamps and you didn't need to write a street address on the envelope -- just Jell-O, LeRoy, N.Y. I deduced that LeRoy, N.Y., was to gelatin what Battle Creek, Mich., was to cereal -- and the postmen in those one-product towns knew where to deliver the mail.
The most bizarre of the molded salad recipes, as well as a measure of how underdeveloped our ethnic sensitivities were in the early decades of this century, was for something called Jappy Jell-O Compote. Mixed in with orange and lemon Jell-O and sliced peaches was a fair amount of rice, hence the politically incorrect Asian reference. The recipe booklet recommends serving this compote as a side dish to the meat course.
Although this creation was featured prominently in the 1920 recipe brochure, where it was pictured on a silver plate next to a silver vase of fresh flowers, it disappeared from later editions -- perhaps as political tensions began to foreshadow World War II, or maybe because someone at Jell-O had a moment of enlightenment.
What was missing from all the Jell-O literature was a case for Jell-O as food. Jell-O may have been a legitimate source of protein in its earlier years. Plain gelatin is made from collagen, which is contained in bones and cartilage and for food purposes is collected at the slaughterhouse. However, none of these recipe booklets made any nutritional claims. Instead, Jell-O was portrayed as a colorful, wiggly substance that turned even a ho-hum meal into a gala occasion.
The nutrition panel on a modern box of Jell-O doesn't reveal any real food value either. A half cup of cherry Jell-O derives most of its 80 calories from 19 grams of sugar. That same quantity of Jell-O contains just 2 grams of protein -- so little that the FDA requires it to disclaim being a significant source of that nutrient.
-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. You can send e-mail to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.