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Inviting Writing: Food and Reconciliation

"The Joys of Jell-O," a cookbook published in the early 1960s, campily hails the glory of aspics and novelty desserts, all in the awful palette of mid-century color printing

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Is it possible to forget a few bad food memories and have a healthy relationship with a foodstuff? Image courtesy of Flickr user larry&flo.

Just because this is a food blog doesn’t mean we can’t talk about other things, like relationship issues. A while back on Inviting Writing we asked readers to tell us about foods that marked their break-ups, and another invitational garnered heartfelt essays about people’s relationships to their kitchens. This time, let’s consider food as a vehicle to get two entities back together. The stories could be about reconciliation between you and a foodstuff with which you’ve had tempestuous relationship, or perhaps how food was used to patch up a rocky—or broken—connection with another person. I’ll get the ball rolling, exploring my estrangement from a certain, wobbly dessert. And if it involves edibles, surely the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up.

If you have a story that fits with this month’s theme, please send your true, personal essay to FoodandThink@gmail.com by Friday, October 7 October 14. We’ll read them all and pick our favorites, which will appear on the blog on subsequent Mondays.

Making Room for Jell-O

Appendixes are funny things. You have only one of them and they go wonky just once, which means you need to be intuitive enough to tell the difference between a gnarly case of food poisoning and the sensation of the right side of your body getting ready to pop a seam. If the lightbulb goes off in your head early enough, you can get to the doctor and have the residual organ lopped off in a grand act of outpatient surgery. Otherwise, if you let it go so long that it erupts, you could develop a deadly case of peritonitis. Many famous people have gone this way: magician Harry Houdini, silent screen actor Rudolph Valentino, painter George Bellows. Thankfully, when my appendix decided to self-destruct when I was 14, I made it into the operating room, but the appendix burst mid-procedure. For the next three days I was stuck in the hospital, subsisting on a diet of broth, Italian Ice and Jell-O. Three times a day, without fail.

My mom used to do lot of fun things with Jell-O. She’d gel a sheet of the stuff and use cookie cutters to make novelty-shaped jigglers, or fold in some Cool-Whip while the gelatin was beginning to set for a completely different flavor and texture. And then there were the plastic egg molds she’d bring out at Easter to create three-dimensional artificially flavored treats. Jell-O was so much fun, so pure, so seemingly impossible to ruin. Yet the hospital cafeteria managed to achieve just that with their Lysol-colored cubes of lemon gelatin that had grown a peelable skin atop the wiggly insides, the lot of them twitching in a bowl. By the time I got home, my love affair with Jell-O was over, to the point that just the smell of the stuff being prepared made me feel ill. After a few years I could stomach it if it was mixed with other ingredients—lots of them. But standalone Jell-O was an absolute no-go.

A month or so ago I was in the local Goodwill thumbing through a bin of vintage cooking pamphlets when I found a copy of The Joys of Jell-O, a cookbook first published in the early 1960s that campily hails the glory of aspics and novelty desserts, all in the uniquely awful palette of mid-century color printing. Contained therein were pictures vegetables trapped in suspended animation and recipes calling for ungodly-sounding pairings—pineapple, lemon gelatin and mayonnaise anyone? The food presentations aspired to elegance, yet there is something inherently tragicomic about the sight of shrimp fastidiously arranged around the sides of an atomic green ring mold. These images that reinforced my idea that this is surely what they serve in Hell. Nevertheless, my deep-rooted love for kitchen kitsch trumped my longstanding prejudices and I picked up the book.

On a rainy day, I decided to attempt the rainbow cake: five layers of whipped Jell-O piled one on top of the other with the whole shebang encased in a layer of whipped cream. It was the kind of dessert that looked wonderfully ridiculous, and yet it seemed quite edible compared to its cookbook counterparts. That day I learned that Jell-O molds are hard work. One must be attentive. If I timed things just right, I could ply my hand mixer in a bowl of not-quite-firm gelatin and whip it up so that it frothed and doubled in volume, pour that layer into a ring mold, wait for that to cool and then try to prepare the next layer. It was an all-day affair, and I didn’t quite get the hang of the process until about layer three—orange.

From an architectural standpoint, the resulting cake was an epic disaster, splitting, sliding and wobbling every which way. Of course it all dumped nicely into a bowl and was consumable. The layers that turned out more like a traditional batch of Jell-O failed to make me gag. (Still didn’t think well of them, but even those sentiments could be considered progress.) But the ones that came out as they were supposed to tasted fantastic, surprisingly light and fluffy with a texture like an unusually moist cake made from a mix. Perhaps I misunderstood this neglected, complex foodstuff that had so much more potential beyond the “set it and forget it”-style dessert item I initially thought it to be. Perhaps this is a relationship that merits more thoughtful exploration.

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