Inspiration comes in curious ways. As my editor and I were discussing, via email, possible titles for my earlier disco column she mentioned that a friend had written an uncomplimentary column on disco with a politically incorrect title.
He received a critical response stating that his “brain was more rubbery than generic Jell-O.”
Well, that conjured up an interesting image for me that I had to pursue. And as my research reflected, technicians at St. Jerome Hospital had performed an experiment where they tested a bowl of lime Jell-O with an EEG. Believe it or not (and I do), the bowl of wiggly Jell-O had brain waves identical to those of adult men and women.
We can deduce from that experiment that the critic may have been correct in his assessment of the disco writer. Having never met the writer I can offer no comment.
The research piqued my interest so I wandered back in the past to discover the origin of Jell-O.
In 1845, an industrialist named Peter Cooper obtained a patent for a powdered gelatin. Cooper also built the first American steam-powered locomotive so we don’t know why he was fooling around with gelatin. It was easy to manufacture and useful in cooking but he abandoned his patent and played with his train set.
Pete merely capitalized on something that had been around since the 15th century, albeit in a different form.
Gelatin was first produced by extracting collagen from boiled bones, connective tissues and other animal products (don’t ask, I won’t tell).
It was sold in sheets and had to be purified, a time-consuming process. Thus, gelatin desserts were mostly on the tables of royalty and the well-to-do. That is, until Pete made his breakthrough.
Lack of a good marketing campaign caused the gelatin to lie quivering until 1897. At that time a carpenter in LeRoy, New York, Pearle Wait, was developing a cough remedy and a laxative tea in his home — don’t even consider the result of his process if the cough remedy part doesn’t work.
Well, Pearle’s concoction using gelatin yielded a fruit-flavored dessert, which his wife, May, named Jell-O. She added strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon flavoring to granulated gelatin and sugar (sugar was important).
Pearle was better with hammer and nails than as a marketer so he gave up in frustration and sold the trademark to Orator — yes, that was his first name, he should have been a minister — Frank Woodward in 1899.
Orator’s company, Genesee Pure Food Co., was already producing the successful health drink “Grain-O.”
Genesee mounted an advertising campaign and within two years sales of Jell-O mounted to $250,000, a lot of money in 1902.
The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed Jell-O to be “America’s Most Famous Dessert” — ignoring ice cream sundaes.
That certainly boosted Jell-O’s sales but the big hit occurred when Genesee sent “armies” of salesmen out into the field to distribute free Jell-O cookbooks — what was tricky about making Jell-O?
That tactic worked and Genesee added three new flavors: chocolate (discontinued in 1927), cherry and peach.
As events transpired, bigger companies gobbled up smaller ones as Genesee merged with Postum, which acquired Birdseye’s frozen foods, to form General Foods Corp.
In 1930, the company introduced lime to complement other things cooks were tossing in to aspics and salads such as cabbage, green peppers, celery and occasionally cooked pasta.
Then in a master marketing stroke Jell-O made Jack Benny the dessert’s spokesperson.
Jack’s musical director wrote the jingle spelling “JELLO” that held sway in the company advertising for several decades.
Nothing succeeds like success so in 1934 Jell-O came out with instant puddings beginning with chocolate (how could they go wrong?) followed by vanilla, tapioca, butterscotch, coconut and liver (no, just kidding).
There was no end to the creativity of ingredients for Jell-O as marshmallows (contained in almost every Lutheran potluck salad) and almonds were added.
The Des Moines Register published a recipe for a tomato soup gelatin salad, served chilled (slides down easy).
Baby Boomers hopped on the Jell-O bandwagon — it was easy and cheap — boil a little water, toss in the powdered Jell-O, refrigerate and you had something (that was mostly sugar and artificial flavoring).
For future use note fruits that sink are: seedless grapes, fruits in heavy syrup such as cherries, apricots, peaches, pears and pineapple. Fruits that float are: apples, bananas, orange and grapefruit sections, sliced peaches and pears, things packed in light syrup.
Sports found their way into the Jell-O mold as some bars (dives) featured women in Jell-O wrestling contests (not a real sport).
I’ll conclude with a strange statistic (who complies this data?): Residents in Salt Lake City consume more lime-flavored gelatin than any other city in the US
Meanwhile, back to an original premise, that of the brain waves of many men and women having the same brain waves as a bowl of Jell-O. You may know some of them or at least have read their letters to the editor.