What are your memories of Jell-O, the trademarked gelatin dessert/salad? (Folks actually argue about whether the product is a dessert or a salad.) I’ve asked that question a lot lately, and the answers are all over the place. Most remember their mommies dumping the drained can of Del Monte fruit cocktail into the Jell-O in a mold and then unmolding and slicing when firm. That was the challenge for many—unmolding without a mishap. Dunked into too warm a bowl of water—or for too long—and drip, drip, drip. In my house chaos could ensue over who was to get the maraschino cherry piece.
Well this drip has happy memories of the dish, especially the freshly whipped cream that accompanied it and the (most often) sliced bananas that went into it. So it’s not surprising that ever since I heard about the Jell-O Gallery Museum, and it being just up the road in LeRoy, New York (five minutes from New York State Thruway exit 47), I’ve wanted to visit it. I finally got the chance when my local Senior Citizens group sponsored a bus tour to the gelatin grail.
A One-Day Autumn Excursion
I’ve chosen to write about the gallery because it occurred to me that to visit LeRoy would be ideal for both leaf-peepers and dessert lovers. It’s an easy one-day trip from almost everywhere in our region. And I’ll throw in a suggested stop for lunch at a uniquely charming restaurant just down the street from the gallery. Turns out the Jell-O Gallery Museum is housed in a stone building that was a former town school. It is administered by the LeRoy Historical Society and is linked to an antique house across the back garden and accessible by the—wait for it—Jell-O Brick Road, each brick inscribed with the names of donors to the museum.
But Wait, There’s More
The Gallery itself is packed into just a few rooms and is easily seen in an hour or two depending on your interest in advertising memorabilia, early packaging, the extensive collection of molds, and the shop jam-packed with tee and sweat shirts, books, kitchen hang-ups, and lots more. There’s even some signage left over from exhibitions at fairs and such, particularly an early 90s exposition at Rochester’s Strong Museum. Our guide directed us about and as our group gawked and walked there were plenty of murmurs along the lines of “oh, we had that,” or “I remember those.” The Gallery is open seven days a week, April through December, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. (Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m).
As an old ad guy I was delighted by all of it, and I simply had to learn more. So, more about our trip later, but first, more about the product and its route from Main Street in paternalistic LeRoy in 1897 to the shelves of your favorite market today.
My research took me to the computer where I ordered at least a half-dozen Jell-O recipe books. Had I only known it, I needed only one to tell me all I will ever need to know about the company. This is a 2001 book Jell-O: A Biography, The History and Mystery of “America’s Most Famous Dessert,” written by Carolyn Wyman, the author of another favorite kitsch book that I happen to have in my collection: Spam: A Biography. (How’d I miss the Jell-O book?)
Writer’s, but Never Reader’s, Cramp
I must have a dozen pages of notes I jotted when reading the book, but I’ll try to make sense out of them. The first point that Ms. Wyman makes is that the product was ahead of its time, in that it is a convenience food: bowl, contents of the package already flavored and sweetened, boiling water, stir, chill, eat. No recipes needed. Simple.
Even a responsible under-teen could do it, and early ads and boxes (1904) featured the Jell-O girl, who looked about nine. Evidently boiling water wasn’t considered a hazard back then.
Rose O’Neil’s Kewpie dolls entered the promotional scene in the early 20th century. I know someone who still collects these adorable little dolls.
I was shocked to learn (at the Gallery and from the book) that none other than Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish—the leading illustrators of the day—provided artwork in the 1920s for the recipe booklets that were packed in each box. If you have one of these in a drawer, get it out and cash in. They are worth real money today.
All in Flavor say Jell-O
Knox, also an Upstate New York (Johnstown) product, may have had the first gelatin—think of all those hooves!—but it, being unflavored, had to be added to other ingredients—to make a mousse, for instance. Jell-O came sugared and flavored (and later in a diet version called D-Zerta.)
Jell-O originally came in pretty standard flavors: strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon. (Only the citrus versions have natural flavor even today. The rest are clearly marked “artificial flavor.”) Later, lots more flavors were added, discarded, reintroduced—oh, the complexity of it all—although I’d love to have tried the coffee, chocolate, and blueberry, but cherry and lime came and mostly stayed. A cola flavor fizzled after its introduction in 1942. Peach, apricot, and blackberry came and went.
As far as ownership of the trademark is concerned, that, too, is complicated. The original inventor sold the procedure to a LeRoy neighbor for $450 in the 1890s. The new owner created a company called Genesee Pure Food Company and was also selling a product called Grain-O, “a pure food drink.” Back then coffee’s caffeine was thought to be harmful. (Read today’s headlines: it’s now thought to be beneficial, just as I thought!) You might remember Postum, its competitor.
A Brilliant Marketing Plan
Sales of the new-fangled product were slow in the beginning. Credit an unnamed marketing genius who concocted a unique plan. A fleet of nattily dressed salesmen in equally natty rigs (and by 1908 in cars) fanned out on specified city streets. Armed with Jell-O recipe booklets, they’d slip a copy under the householder’s door. Then they’d alert the local grocers that demand for the product was imminent. Whatever wasn’t sold could be handed out to employees. (We’re told that about fifty collections of Jell-O recipes have been published to date.)
By 1915 there were women demonstrators at fairs, church socials, etc. and then over the years there were the celebrity “product pitchers.” In the ’30s, Jell-O—now part of General Foods—sponsored the highly rated radio show The Jack Benny Program. Don Wilson, the announcer, would intone “There’s always room for Jell-O.” Benny, wife Mary Livingstone, and Co. decamped for Chesterfields by the ’40s, but then along came Kate Smith and even New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson’s clubwomen to sing the product’s praises. And so did doyenne Ethel Barrymore. And I still remember Henry Aldrich doing the same, admittedly in his wobbly voice that matched the wobbly product. After that it was Dennis the Menace and the Berenstein Bears. Kate Smith was retained as spokesperson for the new instant puddings in the ’50s. I rest my case.
A well-produced cookbook, Joys of Jell-O, hit the stores in 1961. (It was revised in ’71.) A crushing blow, however, hit LeRoy, also in 1961, when the manufacture of Jell-O was moved to Dover, Delaware, along with other General Foods and then Kraft brands such as Cool-Whip (a shiver went down my back as I wrote this), Shake & Bake, Minute Rice, Kool-Aid (Jell-O minus the hooves), Tang, and others, all of which have yet to grace my kitchen shelves. Sorry. These products were now under Philip Morris, who, because of the Surgeon General, was diversifying. And I am in the minority, as the company boasts that 75 percent of homes will have at least one box of Jell-O on hand.
Jigglers, Shots, Wrestlers, and Cosby
Probably the less said about these topics the better. is is a family magazine. But Jigglers were created as snack foods for kids who come home from school or playground hungry. As the ads said, it’s “the Jell-O you hold in your hand” (preferably one that’s been washed). “Shots” simply replaced water with alcohol. And Cosby, only the third spokesman for the brand, was on hand for about twenty-seven years.
Before I close—with a recipe for goodness sake—I have to admire the research and scholarship that Ms. Wyman pursued in writing this book. There are lists of slogans the company has used over the years, a scorecard on flavors old and new, as well as a long list of Jell-O metaphors or similes. Let me end with just a few that you might have heard in board rooms, committee meetings, political speeches, and your nearest barroom:
Like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall; Like eating Jell-O with chopsticks; Jell-O for Brains; As exciting as watching Jell-O set; Knees reduced to quivering Jell-O; there are countless others.
I hope that none of these apply to the reading of these pages.
P.S. No wonder I celebrate LeRoy. I discovered it’s where the string-less string bean was developed. Who else would tell you these things?
Mint Cream Dream
This recipe was dreamed up by Scott Blackerby of Bambaro Restaurant in Salt Lake City. That town is a hotbed of Jell-O lovers. And, before I go, I must mention that food service personnel in countless hospitals, nursing homes, and schools are still fans of J-E-L-L-Oh! I never had a dreamy dish like this when I was in hospital.
- 1 c. boiling water
- 1 (3 oz.) package lime flavored Jell-O gelatin
- 3⁄4 c. sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 c. cold water
- 1 c. whipping cream
- 3⁄4 tsp. peppermint extract*
- Dark chocolate shavings
Stir boiling water into gelatin, sugar, and salt in a large heat-resistant bowl at least three minutes until completely dissolved. Stir in cold water. Refrigerate until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.
Beat whipping cream and peppermint extract with electric mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form. Gently stir into chilled gelatin until well blended.
Pour into dessert glasses or molds or a large glass bowl. Refrigerate until set. Garnish with chocolate shavings, if desired. Serves 6.
*I don’t normally keep peppermint extract on hand, so I’m using the same amount of green crème de menthe.
Lunch or Dinner?
I must mention the restaurant our tour group was taken to just blocks from the Gallery. It was a charmer of a place called the D&R Depot Restaurant. The building has been beautifully repainted and landscaped, and inside there is a round table suspended from the ceiling in the main dining room and, on it, a model choo-choo chugs. The kids would love it. Heck, I loved it. Open every day 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 63 Lake Street (Route 19).