Jell-O is primed for a comeback. It’s a most modest indulgence, inexpensive and fat-free. It has a nostalgic earnestness, evoking memories of tonsillectomies and Mom’s bridge club, but it can also play the irony card as an amusingly kitschy party dish, all retro-cool atop a Mid Century Modern chrome and glass table. Plus, it wiggles.
Jell-O comes with its own mythology.
Prototypically American, for years Jell-O was the official welcoming dish served to immigrants as they passed through Ellis Island. It’s been found to have numerous medical applications, as a testing medium for pancreatitis, mimicking brain waves for an EEG, and as an experimental cancer therapy; and by day 3 of the stomach flu, it’s just about the only food you can handle.
Jell-O has even been touched by scandal. In the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the case hinged on a meeting between two communist spies. One spy had stolen atomic secrets from the military compound at Los Alamos, and the other was to deliver the secrets into the hands of the Russians. The prosecution alleged that Julius Rosenberg had arranged for a meeting between the pair of spies by tearing a Jell-O box in two and giving a piece separately to each. The theory went that when the spies met up to pass along the stolen secrets, they would be able to confirm the other’s identity by fitting the Jell-O box together. The torn Jell-O box shown in court was seen as a damning piece of physical evidence that led to the Rosenbergs’ controversial convictions and executions. That Jell-O box is now held in the Public Vaults of the National Archives.
A distinguished past and a bright future.
Our infatuation with all things DIY should help kickstart the Jell-O comeback.
The unique properties of Jell-O make it a magnet for tinkerers. Play with the ratios and it can be a liquid, a solid, or something in between. You can use it as finger paint or hair dye; as a powder it will deodorize the cat’s litter box, and as a paste it’s a household cleanser.
In its gelled form, Jell-O is edible entertainment. Its color and opacity are endlessly variable. It molds into any shape and suspended objects can be layered in, making it a favorite of both holiday hostesses and office pranksters who are endlessly amused by gelatin-encased staplers.
Jell-O is an enduring symbol of American ingenuity. It’s also a remnant of the unpretentious traditions of American cookery. It reminds us that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when a wiggly, jiggly, gaudy mass was the height of sophisticated dining.
Liz Hickock is an internationally exhibited sculptor and photographer who is currently working in the medium of Jell-O. Best known for her gelatin renderings of urban landscapes, she has transformed the San Francisco skyline, the Arizona desert, and the city of Wilmington into fragile, shimmering mosaics.
In upstate Le Roy, New York, birthplace of Jell-O, the Jell-O Brick Road leads to the Jell-O Gallery. General Foods moved the factory out of state years ago, but the museum still hauls in busloads of tourists drawn to artifacts and exhibits like the evolution of Jell-O packaging and a Jell-O-themed Barbie doll; and a gift shop that carries boxer shorts bearing the Jell-O tagline: Watch it wiggle,see it jiggle.
The motto of My Jello Americans is ‘in order to form a more perfect union of gelatin and alcohol.’ In other words, they blog about jello shots. But that simplification belies the artistry of their creations: intricate, elegant sculptural objets wrought in boozy Jell-O.