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The baby boom-era Jell-O mold is so retro that it’s becoming vogue again.
Photo courtesy Victoria Belanger
A strawberry cheesecake Jell-O mold created by Victoria Belanger, author of the blog "The Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn."
Photo courtesy Angie Cao
Peaches and cream Jell-O mold.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Say “Jell-O” or “Jell-O mold” in today’s society and people are likely to picture a hospital lunch tray or a scene from the ’60s period drama “Mad Men,” but not a modern dinner table.
Truth is, this 116-year-old product still slides off supermarket shelves with surprising speed, and the baby boom-era Jell-O mold is quivering its way back into mainstream culture as a retro dessert.
Roanoke native Victoria Belanger, who now lives in New York, could consider herself a pioneer of the Jell-O comeback. For five years, she has maintained a blog called The Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn, and last year her first cookbook, “Hello, Jell-O!,” (Ten Speed Press, $16.99) was published.
The 35-year-old photographer’s obsession with flavored gelatin was born out of frugality. While unemployed in 2009, she found that Jell-O was a cheap, easy dessert to bring to dinner parties. But as she played with the squishy, jewel-toned substance, she began to perceive it as more than just food. It felt like art.
“Initially when I got into it, it seemed fun. It seemed kitschy. It felt like making a food sculpture and also it was inexpensive and everybody was broke,” she said. “Nobody could afford $6 cupcakes, which was all the rage at the time.”
The characterization of Jell-O as a poor man’s food traces back to 1897, when its invention gave working-class families the ability to enjoy something that had, until then, only appeared on the tables of the well-to-do.
In the Victorian era, molded jelly dishes were often made from scratch, which involved boiling animal bones and other byproducts in order to extract the collagen from which gelatin is made. At the very least, cooks had to purify sheets of gelatin, which was also time-consuming.
According to Lynne Belluscio, curator of a museum called the Jell-O Gallery in La Roy, N.Y., such a dish was considered high-class and was the star of the table.
“The fact of the matter is, if we really look at the history of the brand, it was originally an elitist food,” she said. “Only rich people could afford to make a jelly.”
Some 13,000 people visit the Jell-O Gallery every year, where they learn that a carpenter named Pearle Wait, who also made a cough remedy and laxative tea, first came up with a fruit-flavored gelatin. It was his wife, May, who reportedly coined the name “Jell-O.” In 1899, Wait sold the formula for Jell-O to a La Roy man named Frank Woodward for $450.
Over the next several years, a revolutionary advertising campaign propelled the product. It included door-to-door distribution of samples and recipe booklets that featured illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell and other well-known artists. Comedian Jack Benny became the voice of Jell-O in 1934 with radio ads that popularized the now iconic jingle “J-E-L-L-O.”
By then, Jell-O molds were becoming a mainstay. Anybody who lived through the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s can attest that gelatinized dishes were all the rage . Even savory concoctions were in play, a trend that Jell-O encouraged with flavors such as celery and spiced tomato, now (mercifully) discontinued.
Jell-O sales began to decline in the late 1970s and ’80s, maybe because more mothers worked outside the home and had less time to cook. Marketers decided to target young mothers by pushing the idea of “Jigglers,” or Jell-O made into fun shapes. That, plus the powerful advertising voice of spokesman Bill Cosby, helped the brand recover from the sales slump.
Still, the average person growing up in the ’90s and 2000s saw very few Jell-O molds unless they were brought to holiday dinners by an older relative. Belanger herself remembers only the occasional Jell-O cup topped with whipped cream.
“I think Jell-O sort of fell out of favor in the ’90s when we were growing up,” she said.
There are a few exceptions. Jell-O has remained a beloved food in parts of the Midwest, and is the official state snack of Utah, which has the highest per-capita Jell-O consumption in the country. For the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a commemorative pin was designed that featured a bowl of green Jell-O.
Now, it seems the rest of the country is circling back around to what the Jell-O Gallery calls “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”
“There is a trend toward fancy desserts,” Belanger said, “but also I think there is a throwback, especially with the economy, to the inexpensive, simpler times sort of values that Jell-O plays into.”
Not Grandma’s Jell-O
Belluscio, the museum curator, has learned that everybody has a Jell-O story.
That includes me telling her about my grandmother’s cream cheese-stuffed pears suspended in green Jell-O, which Belluscio said was a variation of something called “Under the Sea Salad.”
Some of Belanger’s concoctions resemble those old-school specialties, but for the most part, her molds are far more sophisticated.
For one thing, Belanger does not use actual Jell-O as often as she did when she first started her blog. Instead, she has learned to manipulate another Kraft product, Knox unflavored powdered gelatin, using ingredients such as fruit juice, canned pumpkin, sweetened condensed milk and cocoa powder. In addition, she often sneaks in adult flavorings, including silver tequila, peppermint schnapps, elderflower liqueur and champagne.
The result is more mature than a fraternity-party Jell-O shooter. Some of her recent creations include a grasshopper pie mold, sparkling champagne and strawberries, a bourbon banana pudding mold, and pumpkin spice latte molds. Her petite watermelon appetizers were featured on
Oprah.com and her peaches-and-cream Jell-O mold (pictured on the cover) was highlighted on the popular food blog The Kitchn.
Her most complicated recipe was a 10-layer, rainbow-colored mold for a friend’s birthday. It took three hours of active time in the kitchen, she said, and she came close to freaking out when her boyfriend tried to come in to the kitchen to use the microwave.
“Everything has to be timed,” she said. “If you go to the bathroom, you might miss your window to put in the next layer and everything will come apart.”
Once friends and family caught on to Belanger’s talent, they started gifting her with Jell-O molds. She said her mother has found many antique molds in Virginia and her sister sends them from her home in the Midwest. Because Belanger doesn’t cook much outside of making Jell-O, she stores some molds in the oven of her small apartment and hangs favorites on the walls as decorations.
She figures she owns about 100 molds, but she’s learned to part ways with some of them so they don’t overwhelm her space. She’s also learned the many tips and tricks that make molding Jell-O more fun than frustrating. She shares those pointers in her book, which would be a nice gift for anyone who is, like Belanger, tired of everyday baked goods.
“I think the cupcake has had its day,” she said.
Of course, that’s what they said about Jell-O.
Outdoor dining update
Last week’s Front Burner column included a long list of restaurants that offer outdoor seating for the warmer months. I encouraged readers to let me know if I forgot any places. The following restaurants were suggested.
To see the entire list, including a map, go to blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet.
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