Monday, June 18, 2007

Pertaining to Jell-O(r)

It's been a long time coming but, I'm finally ready to start tackling Jell-O. For those who have been living under a rock, Jell-O is General Food's brand of powdered gelatin. It comes in various colors and flavors and is the Holy Grail of Utah Mormon food culture.

Gelatin has been around for a long time. It was quite popular during the Victorian era as part of complex "jelly molds." The base ingredient is derived from collegen taken from pigs and cows. The modern product is processed so exhaustively, however, that it's no longer considered an animal product by the FDA.

Back in 1845, an industrialist and inventor by the name of Peter Cooper (you know, the guy who also invented the first steam locomotive?) obtained the first patent for powdered gelatin dessert. The fact that this was a mere three years after the founding of the Relief Society, a charitable group composed of LDS women, is entirely coincidental.


In 1895, the patent was purchased by Pearl B. Wait, a cough syrup manufacturer from Le Roy, New York. He turned Cooper's gelatin dessert into a prepackaged commercial product. His wife, May David Wait, renamed it "Jell-O." Unfortunately for them, they couldn't sell the darned stuff, so they sold the patent to Frank Woodward, a twenty year old high school drop out, who just happened to already own his own business.

Sales were slow, at first, but the long term marketing efforts paid off for Woodward. By 1906 sales of Jell-O brand gelatin dessert broke the $1 million mark. Woodward's company later merged with the Post Cereal Company and became General foods, which now markets it under their Kraft line.

By the 1930's, a dish known as a "congealed salad" became the fashion in America. People would add all kinds of weird things to gelatin: grated carrot, pineapple, you name it. I've even heard of tomatoes being added. General Foods introduced lime flavored Jell-O at the time; to complement the foods people were sticking in these things. In addition, they started putting out vegetable and savory flavors of Jell-O: celery, seasoned tomato, mixed vegetable, etc. Thank goodness these were eventually removed from the market.

Utahans love Jell-O, and it's become a huge part of Utah Mormon Culture. (If they knew what it was made from I don't think they'd be so thrilled, but you never know.) I don't think it's a coincidence that the boundaries of the Jell-O Belt covers Utah, and the areas outside of Utah, that were generally colonized by the Mormon Pioneers.

Utahans take pride in the fact that, for years, Salt Lake City held the record for the most Jell-O consumed per capita. In 1999 they lost that position to Des Moines, Iowa. It was in response to being relegated to number two, that a grass-roots campaign was started by Scott Blackerby of the Bambara restaurant. He organized a "Take Back the Jell-O Title" Recipe Contest, hoping to help Salt Lake City regain the title. The effort was successful and Salt Lake City once again has No.1 Jell-O eating status. As an additional result of that campaign, Jell-O was declared the state's official snack food in 2001.

The stereotypical Utah "Jell-O salad" or "Jell-O casserole" is lime flavored Jell-O with either pineapple chunks or grated carrot mixed in it. Sometimes people top it with Cool-Whip, or some other brand of artificial whipped topping. My mother would make a weird fruit salad by mixing powdered Jell-O with cottage cheese and canned fruit. I like it, but other people aren't so keen. However you make it, Jell-O is a permanent fixture in the Utah Food landscape.

Jell-O, anyone?


~~Louise~~ said...

Hi John,
Just wanted to say thank you for offering a glance in to the "Utah Mormon Jell-O Culture." My two little grandchildren, who live in Idaho, have recently discovered Jell-O.

Although their mom is very "health" conscience, Jell-O is one of the sweet desserts they are "allowed" to enjoy.

John Newman said...

Thanks for your interest in my blog, Louise! I may have to post a few more Jell-O recipes for your grandchildren.

I'm trying to be more "health conscious" but it's not working very well. : )