The Joys of Jell-O

If you’re feeling creative and adventurous and want to mount a Jell-O-based art project, you need to know a few things about how the stuff works

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On April Fool’s Day 1991, the National Museum of American History gathered together a group of historians and social scientists for the first (and so far last) Smithsonian Conference on Jell-O History. It was full of tongue-in-cheek presentations—such as curator Rayna Green’s presentation on lime Jell-O, mini marshmallows and religious cultism—as well as serious discussions about one of the most instantly recognizable products in the modern grocery store. While this particular event, along with its Jell-Off cooking contest, has—alas and alack—yet to be revived, the jiggler-savvy among you may be interested in the third annual Jell-O Mold Competition. Sponsored in part by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the event invites entrants to elevate gelatin beyond flat, nondescript cubes with an eye toward creativity, aesthetics, ingenuity and culinary appeal. Case in point: last year’s winner, which was an irreverent take on the tomato aspics of the 1950s.

Although it is now one of the cheapest dessert items you can score at the store, gelatin was once available only by the upper class. Before there was prefab gelatin, the home chef had to go through an arduous process of boiling calves’ feet for hours—being sure to skim the scum and fat that surface—strain through a special jelly bag, add flavorings, pack it in a mold and chill on ice until set. With all that fuss involved, only those with a staff of servants would venture to serve the stuff at a social function. “I have made calf’s foot jelly twice and never intend to make it again,” Mary Foote Henderson wrote in her 1876 cookbook Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving. “I would not have made it the second time, except for the purpose of succeeding and getting a reliable receipt for this book.”

It was time to simplify gelatin. In the United States, Peter Cooper—the inventor behind Tom Thumb, the first steam locomotive—developed a powdered gelatin in the 1840s, an offshoot from his existing glue business. But in his hands, the stuff didn’t take off. Carpenter Pearle Wait had the idea of adding flavorings to the plain gelatin, which set it apart from other prefab gelatins such as Knox and Cox, calling his creation Jell-O; however, he had a hard time hawking the uninspired-looking mounds of powder door to door and sold his idea to Orator Woodward in 1899 for $450. Woodward sunk thousands of dollars into advertising Jell-O, creating recipe books and taking out magazine ads to promote this now-effortless dessert. Although it was slow to gain a foothold in the market, Jell-O sales soared in the 1920s, thanks in part to radio endorsements by comedian Jack Benny. And Jell-O remains a grocery store mainstay because it’s a convenience product with incredible versatility.

If you’re feeling creative and adventurous and want to mount a Jell-O-based art project of your own, however, you need to know a few things about how the stuff works.

1. On the molecular level, gelatin powder is made up of protein chains. When placed in hot water, the chains separate and re-form when cooled in the refrigerator—but this time there are water molecules wedged in between the protein molecules, making for less-secure bonds that lend chilled Jell-O is signature jiggle. And be careful about the temperature at which you store gelatin that’s already mixed and set. Too warm and the protein chains break and everything turns to liquid again. (In short, it’s thermoreversible.) On that note: when you’re ready to unmold your gelatin, place the mold in lukewarm water to release your dish in one jiggly piece. Hot water will leave you with a brightly-colored liquid mess. And greasing your mold beforehand is also helpful—though it will somewhat dull the surface of your Jell-O.

2. This is important to know when selecting fruits to add in to whatever it is you’re making: uncooked pineapple, kiwi, figs, ginger root, guava and papaya all have protein-digesting enzymes that will break down those chains and leave you with a gelatinous slush. (Though it’s fun to watch for the purposes of at-home science experiments.) Because canned fruits are heated during the canning process, they should be safe to use in your kitchen creations.

3. Remember learning about density in science class? The concept has real-world applications in the kitchen—especially when working with Jell-O. Denser foods like grapes will sink to the bottom of liquid Jell-O while less-dense foods like marshmallows will float. If you’re looking for add-ins to uniformly float in your gelatin creation, the 1963 edition of Joys of Jell-O recommends that gelatin should chill until very thick—about 1 hour 30 minutes—before you throw in your additional ingredients. You’ll know it’s at the right stage if drawing a spoon through the gelatin leaves a definite impression.

For those of you without artistic aspirations, you may look to the handiwork of Jim Halpert from The Office, who used Jell-O to play a prank on his cubicle neighbor/arch nemesis Dwight Schrute. Nothing like coming into work and finding your stapler encased in a gelatinous brick, eh? Since the episode aired, people have repeated the stunt. And yes, you too can learn how to do it yourself.

The rest of you who would like to test your mettle in the mold competition, you have until June 15 to enter; however, space is limited. Visit the official website for full details.

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