(This post is Part II to this one.)
What the heck is Jell-O, anyway?
Come along, dear reader, as we take a moment to investigate the roots of the magical treat that has been enjoyed by so many millions since its modern-era invention in 1897 by Pearle B. Wait in LeRoy, New York . . . Well, that's not really true. Gelatin had been around for at least a few hundred years. What the Jell-O guy did was invent the syrupy sweet flavoring to mask the taste of . . . YUK. Read on.
The Victorian era: Still boiling pig feet
I had thought that statements like "Jell-O is made from horse feet!" were merely schoolyard urban legends, but it turns out that gelatin is "a protein produced by partial hydrolysis of collagen extracted from the bones, connective tissues, organs, and some intestines of animals such as the domesticated cattle, and horses." Yup, the rumors are true. Prior to 1897, if you had a craving for some flavorless (unless you count "sinew" as a "flavor") goo, you had to boil animal nasties for many hours. This is why gelatin was a food enjoyed (if that is the word?) primarily by upper class people who had servants to perform this nasty process (involving scraping hair and skin off of these boiled bits) of collecting said goo. (Although I'm guessing our dear friend and Pilsbury Bake-Off winner, Mary O., is going to read this and tell me that she's made the stuff herself, probably while she was making water from scratch.)
Sugar to the rescue!
Further proving my blanket statement that "if you add enough sugar (or coat it with chocolate), you can make anything taste good!" And that is what the hero of our story, Pearle B. Wait, did in 1897: he came up with the great idea of masking the nasty natural flavor of gelatin with syrupy sweet flavors and putting the whole mess in a little paper box from which a modern housewife could enjoy an instant gelatinous treat.
Birthplace of Jell-O
Which brings us to LeRoy, NY and the Jell-O Museum, which we visited over Memorial Day Weekend. LeRoy, NY (a town of 5,000 souls not far outside of Rochester, yet, like Binghamton, an exercise in time travel back to 1952) was the proud home of the Jell-O factory. That is, of course, until it was shut down in 1964. As can be found in many Upstate NY rust-belt cities, a hulking mass of a manufacturing lingers on as a sort of tombstone to industries-past.
The fact that the corporate parent is long gone does not prevent the ballsy little LeRoy Historical Society from milking Jell-O for all it is worth ("Open Every Day!") and slapping together a small, but interesting, collection of Jell-O history and memorabilia for freak-show tourists like me. The scary thing is that I've known about the Jell-O Museum since long before I moved to upstate NY. It must be on the same circuit with the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin (yup, been there, too!) The best thing about the museum is that it is home grown (check out the sweet "display" of Jell-O molds) and authentic, lacking the corporate polish of places like Hershey, Pennsylvania or even the Tabasco factory in the Middle of Nowhere, Louisiana.
"Jell-O" and "Mayonnaise": two ingredients that do not belong in the same recipe. Ever.
I could go on for miles about all the nasty Jell-O recipes that involve things like Lime or Lemon Jell-O plus [insert non sequitur ingredient here: canned imitation krab meat (in juice); radish; horseradish; cabbage; or the ever-popular mayonnaise]. Instead, I will thank the generation immediately preceding mine, which had the good sense to give the cold shoulder to emetic flavors like "Seasoned Tomato" and "Italian Salad" (what the heck does "Italian Salad" taste like?) Check out this list of discontinued flavors: pickle Jell-O, ladies?
Jell-O + Mormons: A Love Story
The Jell-O saga would not be complete without a little romance, and we can thank the Mormons for providing it here. It seems that Mormons harbor an inexplicable fondness for the gooey delight, consuming an average of 21 boxes per family, annually. Not only is it the Official Snack of the State of Utah, in fact- I could not make this up- the area of the United States most densely populated by Mormons is sometimes called . . . the "Jell-O Belt." You heard it here first!