Of Jell-o and Modernity

A couple days ago my partner stumbled across the “mid-century congealed salads” part of the internet. I had a few thoughts on this fascinating food technology that I would to share with you:

1) Jell-o salads are an early attempt at modernist cuisine; one that–unlike canned vegetables and boxed breakfast cereals– allowed the housewife to experiment creatively and in so doing, enact an ideal. But the images of salads on recipe cards and in cookbooks of the ear are just beyond her abilities: the objects floating in them are too well-distributed, the glistening surface too even. It’s an unattainable ideal for the modern homemaker. See, for example, this recipe card for Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad (1972, Marjon Promotions Inc), which I found in a box of discarded items outside one of my favorite San Diego cafes a few years back:

Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad

2) One key aesthetic difference between Jello-salads and contemporary modernist cuisine, I think, is that many of the ingredients remain intact, yet decontextualized. In contrast, when contemporary modernist cuisine uses industrial chemicals to transform foods, it does so in a way that entirely abstracts them: pea broth becomes tiny, green popping balls while gazpacho becomes a red-orange foam. What strikes me as so uncanny in these now-horrifying Jell-o dishes—such as Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad—as a contemporary viewer is how the asparagus and corn kernels (or in other iconic, cases sliced pimento-stuffed olives and pork cubes) just hang there, so out of context.

3) I associate this early modernist cuisine with a more feminine, home-maker, craft culture and identity than the geeky-masculine sous vide-machine advocating software-millionaire foodies of the current phase of the modernist cuisine moment. Alongside increasing abstraction has come an increased need for kitchen appliances that must be technologically mastered. This modernist, masculine chef identity implies that the prior generations of kitchen appliance–up to and perhaps even including the Kitchen-Aid–old-fashioned, and giving way to progress.

4) Looking at congealed salad images on recipe cards, I’ve long wondered, What freaking flavor is that Jell-o?? Chicken-Aspic Vegetable Salad calls for “2 tbps unflavored gelatin.” Flavorless sounds like a horrible non-food experience in my mouth. And yet, any flavor I can imagine fails to make sense. Could it be savory? Well, according to Wikipedia: “By the 1950s, salads would become so popular that Jell-O responded with savory and vegetable flavors such as celery, Italian, mixed vegetable and seasoned tomato. These savory flavors have since been discontinued.”

5) I have successfully located at a couple academic articles on the cultural history of Jello-in America:

S.G. Hall (2008) “The Protean Character of Jell-o, Icon of Food and Identity.” J of Popular Culture 31.1: pp. 69-80 (which is a little dry) and the nicely researched “The Jell-O Mold: Gelatin and Gender Imaginaries” by then-Yale freshmen Sarah Giovanniello, Broad Recognition. Feb 18, 2013.

Giovaniello writes of the key innovation in communication that helped Jell-O get a solid hold in American culinary culture at the turn of the century: the recipe card.

[W]hen [patent-medicine salesman Pearle] Wait attempted to sell his creation door-to-door, he did not receive the enthusiastic response he had hoped for, and he ended up selling his business to one of his competitors, Frank Woodward. Woodward experienced the same problem as Wait, but one day he stumbled upon a solution: recipes. Rather than peddling the product directly door-to-door, Woodward sent salesmen door-to-door with free samples and recipe books and then persuaded local grocery stores to begin stocking the product. Jell-O had not been selling well because at the end of the nineteenth century, people were not accustomed to buying and consuming prepared foods.[9] Jell-O was one of the first mass-produced prepared foods, and Woodward’s recipes helped households make the shift from food production to food consumption. Companies like Heinz and Campbell’s began selling prepared foods, and canned goods were soon routinely required in recipes. Prepared foods like Jell-O would become more common as the 20th century progressed.[10]

Fascinating evidence that Jell-O really is the quintessential early modernist foodstuff.

6) Bonus: When I was in college, I thought that this website–a catalog of Weight Watchers recipes from the 1970s–was the funniest thing on the internet. I think it still holds up. Check out the page titles.