Gelatin, a tasteless, colorless, odorless protein, is made by extracting collagen, found in connective animal tissues, from the boiled hooves or bones of cows and pigs.  It is a time consuming process that requires several hours of boiling, straining the liquid and leaving it out for a day or so to settle, then clarifying it and skimming the fat off the top.  It has been known since Egyptian times, although not in consumable form;  Traces of gelatin have been found in glues used in the tombs of the pharaohs.

The French were the first to put gelatin to culinary purposes, and it quickly became a delicacy that only the elite could afford.  A gelatin served at table reflected a host who could support a kitchen staff with both the time and skill to produce sophisticated aspics, molded salads and desserts.  By the 19th century, gelatin had crossed the pond, at least in the person of Francophile Thomas Jefferson, who served gelatin desserts at banquets held on his Virginia estate, Monticello.

By the middle of the 19th century, Americans were looking for an easier way to produce gelatin.  In 1845, Peter Cooper, already well known for inventing the first American-built steam locomotive (the Tom Thumb), devised a way to make instant gelatin by grinding large sheets of it into a powder.  He obtained a patent for what he called “Portable Gelatine,” a powder which required only the addition of hot water to become useable.  Although he sometimes sold the powder to cooks he, like the Egyptians, was more interested in its use as a glue.   Little was done with the patent for fifty years until, in 1895, Cooper sold it to Pearl Wait, a cough syrup maker from Leroy, New York.

The cough syrup business was not booming so Wait, and his wife May, decided to take a gamble on the food industry.  While, thanks to Cooper, it was no longer necessary to boil, strain and clarify gelatin, his tasteless, odorless instant powder was hardly a gourmet item. But the Waits knew how to make syrups, and they added fruit syrups flavored with strawberry, raspberry, lemon and orange to improve the powder’s taste.  May named the product, now 88% sugar, “Jell-O.”  Over time, the Waits recognized that they had neither the capital nor the expertise to market Jell-O so, in 1899, they sold the formula, patent and name to their Leroy neighbor, Orator Frank Woodward, owner of the Genesee Food Company, for $450.

Woodward knew how to hustle a product. He soon had well groomed salesmen in elegant horse drawn carriages visiting church socials, county fairs and other community events to proselytize, offer samples and demonstrate methods for making Jell-O.  None of it worked, and sales continued to lag.  Finally, in frustration, he offered to sell the product to another Leroy townsman for $35.  His offer was refused.

Then, in 1904, he paid for an ad in the nationally syndicated Ladies Home Journal which pictured a fashionable woman in a white-apron proclaiming Jell-O to be “America’s Favorite Dessert.” Annual sales rocketed to $250,000. He distributed thousands of pamphlets with recipes using Jell-O and gave away free Jell-O molds.  Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were treated to a bowl of Jell-O.  Billboards and posters littered the landscape.

By 1924, the Genesee Pure Foods Company had become the Jell-O Company, and young Norman Rockwell, not yet famous, was hired to provide advertising illustrations.  He painted a young girl offering her doll Jell-O at a tea party.  In 1934, Jell-O made use of radio, a new media at the time, by having Jack Benny sing a new jingle, “J_E_L_L_O,”   created by the ad agency Young & Rubicam. The plant in Leroy closed in 1964 when the conglomerate General Foods (now Kraft Foods) took over production.

In 1964 a new advertising slogan, “There’s always room for Jell-O,” was introduced to portray Jell-O as a light dessert that could comfortably follow a heavy meal.  Ten years later Bill Crosby was hired to promote “Jigglers,” Jell-O snacks molded into shapes that appealed to children as finger food.  More recently, Jell-O shots, which replace some of the water in Jell-O with alcohol (usually vodka, rum or tequila) have become popular among college students.  While young people sometimes view this as a new invention, a recipe exists from a book, published in 1862, titled How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion, by Jerry Thomas.  It calls for gelatin, cognac, rum and lemon juice.

Market research indicates that Jell-O is a brand now recognized by 99% of Americans and used regularly in 72% of American homes.  Its uses are many:  In the legendary Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments, Jell-O was used to create the effect of parting the Red Sea as the Israelites escaped Egypt. In the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the horse of many colors was in fact six horses sponged down with different colors of Jell-O.  And, most impressive, in 1974, Dr. Adrian Upton wanted to prove that an EEG should not be the only method used to determine whether a patient is dead or alive.  He asked technicians at St. Jerome Hospital in Batavia, New York to attach an EEG machine to a dome of lime Jell-O.  The resulting alpha waves were identical to those produced by a living,  breathing, wide-awake human being.

The recipes that follow call for unflavored gelatin powder, not Jell-O, and there are a few notes on using gelatin powder to keep in mind:

o             Sprinkle the gelatin granules broadly over water or another liquid.  Do not dump the granules in a heap or they won’t all dissolve.  Let the mixture stand for a few minutes before stirring, then stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.  Check by lifting the spoon and looking to see that no undissolved granules cling to it.

o             One envelope of powdered gelatin (about ¼ ounce) is about 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 teaspoons.  But the amount of gelatin in each envelope can vary dramatically, so if  your recipe calls for a specific amount, open the envelope and measure it.  One envelope will usually firmly set 2 cups of liquid, permitting it to be unmolded.  One  envelope will softly set 3 cups, but it may not survive unmolding.  If you want to unmold your dessert, err on the side to too much, not too little, gelatin.

o             Gelatin desserts should chill for at least 8 hours, but 24 hours is better.  After 24 hours, gelatin will not set further.  If you want a faster set, chill the mold first.   Stir the gelatin mixture constantly in a metal bowl placed in an ice bath until it  starts to gel then pour it into the mold.

o             Some fruits, including pineapple, kiwi and ginger, contain an enzyme (bromelin)  that prevents gelatin from setting.  Heating the fruit before using it will destroy the enzyme.

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