When you’re a kid, there’s no dessert half so much fun as Jell-O.
There are those that have their place: Ice cream. Puddings. Cookies. Cake. Pie. But there is nothing that calls to kids quite so much as a jiggling vat of gelatin. Plus, when you’re little, it’s one of the few desserts you can actually help make!
I remembering standing on a chair at the counter, an apron caught up under my armpits as Mom brought out the big white bowl and wooden spoon. While the water came to a boil, she let me open the thin cardboard boxes of gelatin powder, tear off the top of the inside envelope, and carefully empty each one into the bowl. Because my child’s hands were small and not as strong as hers, Mom took on the task of measuring out and adding the sugar. When the water boiled, I was ordered to lean away so as not to get burned by the steam as she poured.
But, oh, that smell! A bloom of pure perfume as the hot water melted the powder and sugar into a lake of possibilities. My job was to stirstirstir until the gelatin and sugar had dissolved. It was a lot of work for little arms. When I got tired, Mom took over for a few minutes until I was ready to resume.
I loved to lean over the bowl, smell the aroma, and watch the wave-motion of the gelatin. We were Jell-O purists in our household, so there was no adding of fruit salad or bananas (although, in later years, Mom took to pouring Jell-O into a drained can of pineapple rings, letting it gel in the refrigerator, and cutting it into slices for salad). My father favored orange and lime, but for me it was cherry or strawberry all the way.
Once the powder had dissolved, Mom covered the bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the refrigerator. Now came the really hard part — waiting for it to gel. Oh, the agony! Throughout the afternoon, I opened the refrigerator door to give the bowl a finger nudge and check its progress only to hear my mother yell, “Shut that door!” from the next room.
On those nights, the anticipation of dessert was so strong that dinner was hard to sit through (never mind eat). I could not wait for that little bowl of glory to be placed in my hands, the dip of the spoon sliding against the wiggly mass and biting into it. The lift to my mouth and then….ah! That wiggly, jiggly, giggly coldness across the tongue (and the singular joy of squirting it between my teeth)!
I’ve gotten away from Jell-O as an adult, not because I have anything against it, but because I’ve grown to be something of a non-dessert person. Oh, I use it now and then, but mostly as an additive to a recipe rather than as a recipe in itself. (It’s integral to my cranberry sauce.) My husband remains a big fan of the more outrageous colors and flavors. All the more power to him, but I will never understand the attraction of blue Jell-O (anymore than the attraction of blue M&Ms. That’s just all sorts of wrong).
I wonder, though, if my family would have eaten the dessert with such gusto back in the day if we’d known what it was made from. Back then (I’m talking the early 60’s), we purchased and consumed food with an inherent faith that of course it was safe and healthy for us. It wouldn’t be in the stores if it wasn’t, right? We didn’t know about additives or preservatives, artificial dyes, and all the other myriad evils we’re aware of today.
Still…gelatin has been around a long time. Popularized in the Victorian era, it’s a “protein produced from collagen extracted from boiled bones, connective tissues, and intestines of animals.” (Wikipedia) At one time (perhaps even now), the starting materials included sturgeon bladder and calves hooves. Nowadays (at least according to Wikipedia), it’s made from by-products of the meat and leather industry, as well as fish by-products.
No wonder they name it things like Fruit Fiesta and Tropical Fusion.