This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Watch it Wiggle: The Jell-O Story, first released on August 14, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SAM BOMPAS: O.K. Hi. I’m Sam Bompas. We are in Bompas & Parr—that’s our studio. We’re stood on the main floor here beneath a golden ceiling, a model of an iguanodon, and some giant, six-foot-high pink and turquoise crystals
CYNTHIA GRABER: Nicky, I wasn’t with you when you visited Bompas & Parr—what is an iguanadon? And six-foot-high pink and turquoise crystals? Explain.
NICOLA TWILLEY: An iguanodon is, in fact, a dinosaur! One of those long lizardy ones. And this particular iguanodon was in South London, at the workshop of food magicians Bompas & Parr. They’re famous for cooking steaks in volcanoes, and flooding buildings with punch so you can go boating and get pissed at the same time, and for glow-in-the-dark ice-cream fireworks, and all sorts of other fabulous, food-related spectacles. And their workshop is jam-packed with bits and pieces from projects past.
BOMPAS: This is a champagne bubble fountain. It gives you a sort of cascade of edible bubbles that taste like champagne. It took us three years to work out how to make that.
GRABER: Clearly time well spent. But, Nicky, you weren’t visiting Sam Bompas because of his champagne bubbles—though they do sound delightful. You were there because Sam and his business partner Harry Parr are the world’s first jellymongers.
BOMPAS: So a jellymonger is—well, a jellymonger is a made-up word and it’s a word we made up to describe what we do: making jellies.
TWILLEY: Whereas of course what we do is make podcasts, specifically Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And this episode, we are all about something that I as an American would call Jell-O, not jellies. Though that’s a little strange, because Jell-O is a brand name—we don’t even have a generic name for a gelatin-based dessert!
TWILLEY: In my home country, the United Kingdom, we call the wobbly dessert jelly AND we call the seedless jam jelly. We are wild like that.
GRABER: Super confusing, I have to admit. But just so that you are not confused, listeners, this episode we will not be talking about the kind of jelly you spread on toast with peanut butter. We are only talking about the jiggly stuff.
TWILLEY: And we have questions for jelly. Like: what on earth gives it that magical texture? How does a powder turn a liquid into a solid?
GRABER: Are all the wobbly desserts from around the world—are they all related? One big jelly family?
TWILLEY: And speaking of jelly families, we are going to talk to a member of the Jell-O dynasty! A Jell-O heiress, in fact.
GRABER: Weirdly, jelly used to be a food reserved for the rich, like our Jell-O heiress, so how did it get downgraded to a snack at kids’ parties?
TWILLEY: All this plus the world’s largest jelly—so big you could sail a ship on it!
BOMPAS: Making a jelly is just like making your favorite cocktail. So anyone that can make a cocktail can make a world-beating jelly.
GRABER: Nicky, you can set me straight here if you want, but what I think Sam is telling us is that if you can pour liquids together that taste delicious when you mix them, you can make a delicious jelly. Am I right?
TWILLEY: You are right, Cynthia. Always. Well, almost always.
BOMPAS: And so we’ve got a load of gin here, we’re going to slop that in.
TWILLEY: Because it was ten in the morning, I thought, why not make a gin-and-tonic jelly?
BOMPAS: Some tonic water.
FIZZING POURING SOUND
GRABER: Sounds like an incredible mid-morning pick-up.
BOMPAS: some rose water as well. Let’s make it a bit more exotic. Not too much of this, it’s very potent.
GRABER: Obviously, this is a cocktail. An amazing-sounding, rose-water-flavored gin-and-tonic, but still a cocktail. How is it about to turn into a jelly?
TWILLEY: That sound, that is the secret ingredient that will turn almost any liquid into a solid—well, a wibbly, wobbly almost-solid. Sam is cutting up leaves of pure Platinum-grade gelatin.
GRABER: At this point, Nicky, you and I had all sorts of questions. But Sam had one answer:
BOMPAS: Go to the master: Ivan Day.
TWILLEY: So we did.
IVAN DAY: My name is Ivan Day. I’m a social historian who specializes in the history of food.
GRABER: Ivan is a historian, yes, and he also happens to have the scoop on what jelly is.
DAY: LAUGHS. Well, basically jelly is the glue that sticks all of your body parts together. And the body parts of every fish and every mammal and every bird. It’s something called collagen, which is a protein, which is found in all connecting tissues and things like fingernails as well as bones and even in hair.
TWILLEY: We and all other mammals are more than a quarter collagen. I feel wobbly even thinking about it.
DAY: And when you cook any of those things, meat, fish, or fowl, and you boil them up or roast them, you always get collagen dissolving into the water.
GRABER: This is already pretty amazing. But, like he said, Ivan’s a historian. There’s more to the science of jelly than just knowing that it comes from collagen. So we called up Kantha Shelke—you might remember her, she’s the food scientist who explained the glories of cheese in our vegan cheese episode.
TWILLEY: And we asked Kantha: What is a jelly?
KANTHA SHELKE: If you say it in chemistry, very technical terms, it’s a solid three-dimensional network. And it is a mixture of a liquid and a solid. And what it is, essentially, is a liquid trapped in the solid that is very fluid.
GRABER: Great, that totally clears things up.
TWILLEY: Lots of things are gels, according to this technical definition—cooked eggs, tofu, even cheese. They’re all liquids that have been trapped in a three-dimensional web so that they seem solid.
GRABER: We can trap liquids and turn them into these semi-solid gels by adding things to them. Gelatin comes from collagen from animals, and, as we just described, gelatin makes a liquid into a gel. And there are substances from plants that can make a gel, too. Kantha says they all have one thing in common.
SHELKE: They are long string-like molecules that tend to wiggle around when they are added to water. In the case of gelatin, which is not soluble in room-temperature water, you need to add it to hot water and it starts to dissolve.
TWILLEY: Back in South London, Sam and I did exactly this.
BOMPAS: Now I’m going to get an induction hob, and bring some water to boil.
SOUNDS OF MOVING EQUIPMENT, BEEPS
TWILLEY: As predicted, our gelatin dissolved in the hot water.
SHELKE: As it starts to dissolve, it actually wriggles around and it’s very active.
TWILLEY: Not that we could see it but I believe Kantha. At this point though, our gin-and-tonic was still a liquid.
BOMPAS: OK. So now this is ready to go into our mold.
BOMPAS: OK. So now for the perilous journey to the fridge.
GRABER: Cooling is a critical step in turning this liquid into a gel, so we asked Kantha, what’s going on in the fridge?
SHELKE: Very slowly, as the mixture begins to cool, these strands—they have less and less energy, and they cannot wriggle around, so they sort of settle down.
GRABER: As these wiggling strands slow down, they get tangled up.
SHELKE: And, as they are getting entangled with each other, they do one more thing—they trap the liquid inside them. So what you get now is something that started out as a liquid, which if you touched it would wet your hand, but, once it is cool, and if you touched it, would not wet your hand, because it has now become a gel.
BOMPAS: To sum up: jelly is just really a texture. You’ve got a liquid, you thicken it into a gel, and then you eat it.
GRABER: Let’s leave your gel cooling in the fridge for a while before you eat it. Because there’s still a lot to figure out about this whole jelly thing. Like, when did people discover that animal bones and skin could turn liquid into jelly?
DAY: Jelly is as old as cookery because the minute that people started heating up flesh or fish and then leaving it to cool down, they would have noticed this by-product of the cooking process. Now we don’t have any written records of this.
TWILLEY: The first written instructions for jelly don’t come along until the Middle Ages in Europe.
DAY: The first recipes tend to be where they’re using jelly that has solidified over the top of mainly fish dishes. So you’ll have a glaze made of jelly over the top of fish.
GRABER: Some of you will never have heard of this, but for the Jews out there, this is gefilte fish! It is! In the middle ages, Jews were stuffing fish and cooking it and cooling it to eat over Shabbat, and the collagen that dissolved out as the fish was cooking turned into a gel when the fish cooled. I know the glass bottles filled with balls of fish in jelly at the supermarket are nothing like this. But real gefilte dish is an example of one of the original jelly dishes.
TWILLEY: As is a very traditional British dish that I have never tried because, frankly, cold squidgy fish is not my cup of tea.
DAY: Anyone who’s ever cooked up eels, which are very, very rich in collagen because they have these cartilaginous bones, will know that you get a byproduct which has survived right through into British modern culinary traditions, although it’s not as popular—something called jellied eels.
TWILLEY: You can still buy jellied eels at traditional eel pie shops in the East End, should you be so inclined.
GRABER: So, those first jellies formed accidentally from cooling cooked meat and fish. But people quickly found jelly useful.
BOMPAS: Jellying is an ancient form of preserving. So that’s one of the reasons things might have been jellied in the past. It’s not *that* effective—it will keep it for half a week, a week. But that’s better than going off the next day. What’s happening there is just the gelatin is stopping air getting to all the things that you put inside it. So it stops them oxidizing and going off and going floppy.
TWILLEY: So at this early stage in its history, jelly is savory. Which is not really the way we think of jelly today.
DAY: It was really during the sixteenth and seventeenth century when sugar starts to become more freely available that in court kitchens you start getting things like lemon juice being added to the collagen mixture, sometimes with wine, sometimes with exotic perfumes, and then set, sometimes in a mould.
GRABER: So we’re getting closer. Now jelly is sweeter, and it’s flavored with fruit and spices. But people mostly weren’t eating this jelly because of the delicious flavors.
TWILLEY: Or even because it helped preserve food.
GRABER: They were going for the spectacle.
DAY: Spectacle is the best way of thinking about jelly because by candlelight, it’s got this unique crystal appearance. I mean if it’s coloured with pomegranate juice or—it will look like a jewel. It will look like a wonderful crystal jewel.
TWILLEY: Jelly is the original pre-Instagram Instagrammable food. It is like today’s freakshakes and rainbow cakes. It was made to be gazed upon.
BOMPAS: You can imagine in an era before electric light, electricity, it was just all with candlelight, and the wobble and the candle coming together to make a quivering delight for the eye.
GRABER: At first, people made jelly in special jelly glasses, so it could be lifted up and admired. Then they started putting colored jelly in seashells, like large scallop shells, and then releasing the jelly so that you have a gorgeous, wobbly, scarlet-colored shell-shaped jelly on your plate.
TWILLEY: And then, by the 1700s, you start getting really elaborate jelly molds.
DAY: There was one lady, a woman called Elizabeth Raffald. I’d call her the Empress of Jelly, really, because she’s the first person to really tell you to use specific molds. One of her recipes told you to make a moon and stars in jelly. So you basically made them out of milk jelly, sometimes colouring the moon with, you know, a yellow colour, maybe some saffron. And then you would embed these in a dome of clear jelly.
TWILLEY: The amazing thing here is that jelly has an optical effect—so the dome of clear jelly acts like a magnifying glass. The overall effect is as if you’re gazing into your own personal telescope to admire a wobbly but magnificent night sky.
GRABER: Ivan’s been collecting molds to make all sorts of these jellies. The molds are two to three hundred years old. Some of the most expensive ones can go for tens of thousands of dollars.
DAY: Well I can’t really tell how many I’ve got. LAUGHS. There are … there are … I don’t know. I’ve got hundreds—I don’t know, I may have thousands. I really don’t know.
TWILLEY: Ivan has special molds for making jelly playing cards, and jelly checkerboards and jelly castles, and even jelly eggs and bacon on a bed of green jelly lettuce.
DAY And there’s one that I have, which is absolutely beautiful, which has this wonderful lion on it.
TWILLEY: To make Ivan’s jelly, first you would make a white jelly with milk for the lion. You’d let that set that at the bottom of the mold
GRABER: Then you’d make a fruit jelly out of strawberries or raspberries so it was bright red, and then you’d pour that on top of the white lion.
DAY: So when you release it from the mold you end up with something that looks like a cameo. So you have a white beautifully sculpted bas relief lion or some other emblem on a bright red background. Absolutely extraordinary. Very cameo-like.
GRABER: We have photos of some of Ivan’s jelly mold extravaganzas, they’re genuinely and kind of surprisingly spectacular. You can see some at gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: The curious thing about these spectacular jellies though—however elaborate they got, and they did get very elaborate indeed— there’s a limit to how big even the most fabulous jelly can be. According to Ivan, who learned the hard way, six or seven inches is the sweet spot for jelly.
DAY: Once the jelly reaches a certain height and you get out of the mold, it will self-destruct if it’s too tall. And it will chase you across the room rather like jelly tsunami. So, you know, you really have to stick to small. Small is beautiful.
GRABER: In theory if you do want to try make a big jelly, you have to add a lot more gelatin to it. Ivan says if you do that, you lose the deliciousness of the jelly.
DAY: Because with a jelly you want a very soft light mouthfeel. You just want it to just dissolve on your tongue. You don’t want a great big sort of uddery lump of goo in your mouth which is going to sit there for a week.
GRABER: But these historic, spectacular jellies weren’t just beautiful. Some of them were also kind of silly.
TWILLEY: Ivan has a mould that is a six-inch tall, cone-shaped pyramid, with steps carved into it.
DAY: It was called a steeple or a steeple cream. And when it comes out of the mold, it wobbles in the most ridiculous way. In fact, it’s got a rather naughty erotic kind of feel to it. And whatever you do, if you’re carrying it, the jelly mold will imitate your movement. So that’s one of the most comical molds that was ever made.
TWILLEY: Again, we have the video at gastropod.com. And I challenge you to watch it without giggling like a schoolgirl.
GRABER: This is just one more aspect of what people loved about jellies.
DAY: Some of them are downright pornographic actually because I think the joke about jelly wobbling is as old as mankind, I think.
BOMPAS: Jelly also comes at a time in the meal when strictures are loosened. It’s at the end of the meal. People who are prepared to be a little bit more fun, a little bit more playful, and tell a few more ribald jokes.
TWILLEY: This slightly naughty aspect of jelly—for Sam, it’s why jelly is so British. After all, we are notorious as a nation for having trouble expressing our feelings or even acknowledging that body parts exist, let alone sensuality. Ugh, gross, embarrassing, quick—make a joke.
GRABER: I don’t have one for you. But Sam’s theory is, British cuisine matches that.
BOMPAS: The stolidness, the stodge, followed by a wry wink and a smile. It’s the dirty joke. It’s the like just acceptable eroticism because we’re all so like het up about it. You can’t actually address the subject or talk about the subject but you can have a sort of quivering jelly as something to project your fantasies onto. LAUGHS.
TWILLEY: Yes, we are pathetic.
GRABER: These gorgeous and somewhat naughty spectacles must have looked light and fun and whimsical in the 1800s, but they actually concealed hours—days—of kind of gross processing to get there.
DAY: So you went to the meat market or the butchers, you came back with a couple of big calves’ feet, which as you could imagine were not very clean. So they needed a really really thorough scrub with some clear water to get rid of all the muck between the toenails or the cloven feet.
TWILLEY: And then you put your calves’ feet in a giant pot, covered them with water, and sat them over the fire.
DAY: And you gently boiled them until they started to fall to pieces. So all the meat around the bone started to fall off. Now that would probably take about two hours of boiling because collagen doesn’t release itself very easily.
GRABER: Then you let it cool down. You poured the mixture through a sieve to catch any meat bits.
DAY: And then you let it set cold and then you had to scrape the fat off the top of this rather gloopy looking jelly
TWILLEY: You’ve sieved it, you’ve scraped off the fat, but your jelly was still kind of gunky at this point. So you mixed it up with egg white and egg shells and then you poured it through a felt bag—a jelly bag. The egg white and shells sort of blocked up the holes in the felt, making it an even finer sieve.
DAY: And you ended up with a crystal clear jelly. Now this is probably now day two.
GRABER: Two days! This is just to make the gelatin! You haven’t even made the jelly yet!
BOMPAS: And then finally you have to have refrigeration. In an era before refrigeration, how do you get that jelly cold enough to set it? So you might have to have exotic ice boated in for you and saved in your ice house—an entire building just for cooling stuff. So jellies are something that we see very everyday, very mundane now. But once upon a time they were just the pinnacle of excess. You know, this was the ultimate status symbol to have on your table. And If you got to taste one of these jellies, you were very lucky indeed.
DAY: But of course you have to remember that the rich didn’t know how to make these jellies. They had working class servants who did. And also the people who made the jelly molds also were working class people. So it was very much an emanation of working class ingenuity for their wealthy patrons.
GRABER: In case you’re all wondering why we’re sticking with England for this part of our story, it’s not just that Nicky gets all patriotic
TWILLEY: About jelly. So proud.
GRABER: And she wants us to interview all her fellow Brits. It’s part of the same story we’ve told you before. England industrialized first, there was better technology to make molds, there were rich people using those molds, and there was a lot of beef.
TWILLEY: Hence plenty of spare calves feet.
BOMPAS: In terms of England’s culinary history, I’d say there’s only two things we’ve ever really mastered and done better than the French. One is roasting.
TWILLEY: You have definitely heard that part before, in our ovens episode.
BOMPAS: The other is jelly. And throughout Europe we were known to be ingenious with the jelly.
TWILLEY: Everyone has something they’re good at. Ours was jelly. But England’s Golden Age of Jelly couldn’t last forever. Jelly’s center of gravity moved West.
GRABER: And jelly became—Jell-O.
DAY: The golden age of jelly came flashing to an end that day in 1914, in Sarajevo, when the First World War broke out.
TWILLEY: Just one of the unremembered casualties.
GRABER: This is also a story you’ve heard before in previous Gastropod episodes, such as the one on cookbooks. The servants went off to fight. Or they went to work in factories. And so the wealthy families, well, they didn’t know how to make those jellies.
TWILLEY: And there was rationing—ice-cream was actually banned in England in 1917, because it used up valuable milk and sugar.
DAY: Jelly I don’t think was illegal but it was considered a fairly frivolous thing. So the whole culture of it just collapsed.
GRABER: But something happened before the war that set the stage for jelly’s eventual come-back.
ROWBOTTAM: Peter Cooper was the man who invented powdered gelatin.
TWILLEY: This is Allie Rowbottom. She’s the author of a new book, a memoir called Jell-O Girls.
GRABER: Peter Cooper did a lot of important things, things that are probably more important than patenting powdered gelatin. He built the first American steam-powered train engine. He laid the first telegraph cables under the Atlantic.
TWILLEY: He founded the Cooper Union in New York, which offered free higher education in technology and engineering to anyone who applied and qualified.
GRABER: But Peter Cooper also patented powdered gelatin in 1845. This cut out the entire two-day shenanigans that Ivan described of boiling up calves hooves. In this new process, that all happened at the factory, and Peter powdered it so it’d be shelf-stable and easy to sell. And so more people could make jellies at home and enjoy them.
ROWBOTTAM: That said he really wasn’t devoted full time to that undertaking and so enter Pearle Wait who wound up making Jell-O itself.
TWILLEY: Pearl Wait and his wife May had a business making cough syrups and laxatives and all sorts of patent mediciines in Le Roy, New York.
ROWBOTTAM: He and his wife May were sort of struggling to get by and they ended up working with powdered gelatin and sort of combining it with their patent medicine penchant to create you know the sweet Jell-O that we know today.
GRABER: Pearle and May were trying to make a new medicine out of this sweet gelatin. They said it was good for hair and nails. They named it Jell-O, and they did that because, like many good entrepreneurs, they wanted to get bought out. They had an exit strategy. Their neighbor was a rich guy named Orator Woodward. And he already made a drink, a coffee alternative, called Grain-O.
ROWBOTTAM: And then they ended up selling it to Orator Woodward for $450.
TWILLEY: Which is the modern-day equivalent of $4,000. For what went on to become the most popular dessert in America.
ROWBOTTAM: Unconfirmed, but I have read it in certain sources that the Waits were pretty bummed.
GRABER: I’m not surprised—and this is where Allie comes in.
ROWBOTTAM: So Orator Woodward was my great-great-great-uncle by marriage. My great-great-aunt Edith married his son prior to Jell-O’s explosion.
TWILLEY: Orator was an interesting dude. In addition to making patent medicines and his Grain-O pure food drink, he had made his big bucks on fake eggs. They were laced with de-licing fluid and the idea was you put them in hen houses to keep the chickens free of lice.
GRABER: Orator gave up his Grain-O and his henhouse delicer after he bought Jell-O from the Waits. But Jell-O didn’t catch on at first.
TWILLEY: Rumor has it Orator actually tried to sell the Jell-O patent to his factory supervisor for thirty-five bucks, but the guy turned it down.
GRABER: But then Orator came up with some pretty great marketing schemes.
ROWBOTTAM: He would sort of select the handsomest men to go knock on women’s front doors during daytime hours and hand out little recipe booklets and boxes of Jell-O. So that was one.
TWILLEY: But the other scheme was the one that really cemented Jell-O’s identity as *the* all-American dessert. Orator came up with a plan to serve immigrants Jell-O on the boat on the way to America—and then, when they got to Ellis Island, they were literally given their own personal Jell-O mold.
ROWBOTTAM: I think you know obviously a lot of people were very eager to immerse themselves in American culture and so here it was, this perfect emblem.
GRABER: The Jell-O company even commissioned Norman Rockwell to do some of their early ads. They were as Americana as you could possibly get. They also invented an all-American Jell-O girl who traveled the world with her pet parrot Polly.
ROWBOTTAM: Her introduction was really to prove to consumers that Jell-O was so convenient that even a child could make it. And that I think really helped sales as well, because at that point and in decades to come Americans would be very hungry for convenience products.
TWILLEY: Jell-O sales rocketed. It became, like I said, the most popular dessert in America. Partly this was because of the same reasons that led to the end of jelly’s golden age in England—there were no servants anymore, because they were able to get better jobs in factories, and so housewives were desperate for help to maintain standards and make three course dinners on their own.
GRABER: That super simple convenience was one thing, but there was another aspect of Jell-O’s appeal. It seemed new and technological and even kind of futuristic, somehow. America was going through a scientific revolution and it was becoming a world power, the kind of place where you might invent a new food.
ROWBOTTAM: And so Jell-O felt like this food of the future, that could really coincide with our collective fixation with science and progress.
TWILLEY: Jell-O worked hard to educate American woman about this strange and wonderful new food. It had radio shows and pamphlets and recipe contests.
ROWBOTTAM: It was such a foreign product when it first came on the market. It really needed some kind of instruction.
TWILLEY: I mean, all these weird Jell-O-based “salads” that you see in recipes from the 1950s—they had to come from somewhere. And in fact, the very first one, which amazingly was called “Perfection Salad”—it was invented by a housewife for a contest. Perfection Salad was simply coleslaw suspended in lemon Jell-O.
GRABER: That sounds totally revolting, I have absolutely no desire to try it myself. But that recipe catapulted lemon-flavored Jell-O from fourth place to second place in the list of the most popular flavors in America.
TWILLEY: And these Jell-O salad recipes—they really stress how suspending chopped up olives and cabbage and tuna fish in Jell-O made ordinary ingredients look a little bit more spectacular. Jelly may have become cheap and convenient by this point in history, but it was still all about looking fabulous.
GRABER: On top of that, Jell-O also helped stretch a little bit of leftovers into an impressive meal. This was particularly important, say, during the great depression or the Second World War.
ROWBOTTAM: I mean you could dump anything that you have, even if it’s bruised or mottled or maybe just slightly bad—just dump it into a Jell-O mold and nobody will know.
TWILLEY: In short, whatever your problem, Jell-O was the solution.
ROWBOTTAM: You would be hard pressed to go to a potluck in the 1950s, anywhere in America, and not find a Jell-O mold of some sort.
TWILLEY: In 1925, Allie’s family sold the company to Postum, which later became General Foods, for $67 million. Which is nearly a billion dollars today.
GRABER: And what did this mean for Allie’s family?
ROWBOTTAM: I mean great wealth, for one. LAUGHS. Great wealth, for one. It’s an interesting family.
GRABER: Allie’s book tells the story of this interesting family—there’s alcoholism and abuse and lots of general misery.
TWILLEY: Money doesn’t buy you happiness, it turns out.
GRABER: But as Allie’s family is struggling with its issues, Jell-O also starts to struggle with issues of its own.
TWILLEY: Like Allie says, in the 1950s, Jell-O was boss. You couldn’t go to a potluck without encountering Jell-O.
ROWBOTTAM: But when the 1960s and 70s rolled around, this idea of a counterculture came in and really disrupted Jell-O’s ties to domesticity. Especially in the 70s when the divorce rates skyrocketed and women started discovering feminism and leaving their husbands.
GRABER: Jell-O was kind of emblematic of the status quo, the perfect-housewife-taking-care-of-everyone-and-everything life that working women were trying to leave behind. So Jell-O came up with a new marketing campaign.
TWILLEY: Initially, they went with trying to guilt women. “Make Someone Happy, Make Someone Jell-O” was the tagline.
ROWBOTTAM: There was a lot of passive urging initially, just trying to sort of cajole women back into the kitchen and to remind women in these sort of passive-aggressive ways that their jobs were to caretake others.That didn’t work.
TWILLEY: Then Jell-O ran a series of print ads in the 1970s.
ROWBOTTAM: Painting women as these stupid creatures who were sort of asking their husbands to go back to work. It was very tongue-in-cheek but it was so oddly placed.
GRABER: In one of those ads, a woman was holding a Jell-O pecan-pie and saying, “Guess what happened when I backed the car out of the driveway, dear.” Ich.
TWILLEY: Or the worst? A woman holding a Jell-O chocolate cheesecake and saying, “Dear, don’t you think I’d be a more interesting person if I went out to work?”
ROWBOTTAM: Yeah. They are pretty backwards. So there’s a lot of flailing, I would say, at that period of time.
GRABER: So Jell-O is struggling to stay afloat. But someone, and something, is about to come to the rescue. Jelly is about to find a whole new audience.
WATCH IT WIGGLE AD (1979)
TWILLEY: In the 1970s, Jell-O is in a panic. Sales are slipping. The marketing team doubles down. They go for two big markets: kids and dieters. Step 1: Hire Bill Cosby. In 1973.
GRABER: Bill Cosby was a household voice to kids in the 70s, kids like me. He’d already made his name as a comedian, sure, but he was also the voice of Fat Albert. And Fat Albert was one of the most popular kids’ shows around.
FAT ALBERT SOUND
TWILLEY: Nowadays Cosby has much less pleasant associations, but his 27-year relationship with Jell-O—the longest ever between a celebrity and a product—it really turned the Jell-O ship around.
JELL-O AD WITH BILL COSBY’S VOICE
GRABER: Step 2: Go for the dieting crowd. In 1984, they came out with a Nutrasweet-sweetened variety—sugar-free Jell-O.
TWILLEY: The thing you have to remember is that everyone was wearing a leotard in the 80s.
GRABER: Or at least they wanted to.
TWILLEY: And they were jazzercising and watching Jane Fonda do side stretches in legwarmers. And they were signing up to Weight Watchers in their millions.
GRABER: And Jell-O was a zero-point food.
ROWBOTTAM: It you know obviously opened itself up to a whole new market
GRABER: By the end of the 90s, sugar-free Jell-O made up a full 40 percent of Jell-O’s sales.
TWILLEY: And, finally Step 3. Transition Jell-O from a dessert into a snack. This is kind of an amazing story. In the 1980s, a team of MBAs were given the job of finding Jell-Os next big thing. Their leader was a man named Dana Gioia, who is now Poet Laureate of California, not joking. And Dana invented jigglers, little squares of concentrated Jell-O that were ready to eat, or play with.
BILL COSBY’S VOICE IN JELL-O JIGGLER AD
ROWBOTTAM: The combination of Cosby and Jigglers really brought Jell-O back from the brink, as did the redirection of pudding cups—sugar-free pudding cups for women who are on diets.
GRABER: Here’s where Jell-O’s story actually weaves with Allie’s own life.
ROWBOTTAM: You know, when I was a young woman living in New York, I had a pretty gnarly eating disorder. And I would really rely on Jell-O—sugar-free Jell-O pudding cups—to be a sort of safe food for me that I could eat without guilt.
TWILLEY: This disordered eating is a big thread in Allie’s book. Another is to do with one of Jell-O’s other surprising markets.
ROWBOTTAM: Jell-O is a hospital food.
GRABER: It’s incredibly common not just in hospitals, but also in institutions like nursing homes.
ROWBOTTAM: The reason for that being Jell-O melts in the mouth from what feels like a solid to the person consuming it, to a liquid. So for people on liquid diets, people who can’t stomach solid food, Jell-O is the perfect solution.
TWILLEY: And this ends up providing another kind of poignant moment in Allie’s family story.
ROWBOTTAM: Jell-O was the last meal my mom ever ate. And it was the only thing that she could eat for almost a year. Which felt to both of us like sort of this odd twist of fate because during her lifetime she really didn’t eat it.
GRABER: Allie’s mom hated Jell-O because she blamed Jell-O and the riches it had brought their family for a lot of their problems.
ROWBOTTAM: You know, I thought that she would be more upset about that than she ended up being. But she sort of accepted it with this sort of grim humor.
TWILLEY: Minus the millions of dollars, the role that jelly plays in Allie’s family—that’s the place of jelly in modern-day America. Hospitals, dieters, kids. Maybe some frat boys with Jell-O shots, which by the way were supposedly invented by soldiers looking to get around the no-alcohol rule on base. Oh—and also Mormons.
ROWBOTTAM: Jell-O is Utah’s official state snack. It’s very popular in the Mormon community.
GRABER: This is long way from the glory days when jelly desserts were a status symbol—they were a grown-up gorgeous spectacle for rich people to serve at the end of a banquet. But it turns out that there are some places in the world where jellies are still grown-up food.
RAWEWON SUTICHAVENGKUL: Oh hi! Good morning. Oh, I mean good evening to you.
TWILLEY & GRABER: LAUGH
TWILLEY: Good morning to you though.
GRABER: Yes, good morning.
GRABER: This is actually quite strange, but as we were working on this episode—
TWILLEY: Super top secret, we hadn’t yet told anyone.
GRABER: Right. And a listener wrote to us from Thailand to say how much she loves the show—
TWILLEY: Why thank you!
GRABER: And she also suggested that we should do an episode on agar desserts in Thailand.
TWILLEY: Because her family business is agar. They have an agar factory. And agar is used like gelatin. So we decided to call her up.
GRABER: Thank you so much. Thank you for writing in and for agreeing to talk to us. The first thing is I don’t know how to pronounce your name.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: Oh, it’s very hard for every foreigner to say. It’s Rawewon.
GRABER: And what’s your last name?
SUTICHAVENGKUL: Sutichavengkul. That is a long last name. LAUGHS. You can call me Won. It’s easy one.
GRABER & TWILLEY: LAUGH.
TWILLEY: Won told us that it is still the golden age of jelly in Thailand. Agar jelly.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: Yeah, grownups eat agar too. It’s a very common thing for people in Thailand. We usually make dessert. Just boil the agar powder with water and add some sugar and add some flavor and then let it sit in the cool temperature and then you have it! The agar dessert.
GRABER: People in Thailand make elaborate designs with their agar desserts. Won sent us photos of agar flowers and mermaids and fish in a pond. It sounds a lot like nineteenth-century England.
TWILLEY: But wait—what exactly is agar? And how are these jellies different from European and American jellies?
GRABER: Even Ivan, as proud as he is of English jelly, told us that jelly is much bigger than one country.
DAY: Well across the globe this texture of food, which sits on the tongue and then dissolves slowly, which gives this real sensual experience, is something that you do get in other cultures.
GRABER: In England, as Ivan’s described for us, jellies were made from gelatin. But you can find these kind of squishy, dissolving foods everywhere. In Japan, they eat fruit-jelly cups and jelly noodles made from a tuber called konjac. There’s Turkish delight made from a plant resin called mastic. Chia seeds were an incredibly important food in Mesoamerica, and chia seeds swell into a gelatinous pudding when left overnight in liquid.
TWILLEY: Turns out that the world is full of gelatinous stuff. We asked Kantha, our food scientist friend, to explain.
SHELKE: So in nature jelling agents are not found freely, but they are extracted because of what we do to certain food materials.
GRABER: We’ve been talking about animal-based gelling agents—you know, gelatin from collagen. Gelatin is made up of these strands that are shaped like a helix, kind of like a slinky. These strands are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. The gelling agents in plants are carbohydrates called polysaccharides.
TWILLEY: The most plentiful and widely used plant sources are seaweed—specifically carrageenan and our listener Won’s favorite jelling agent, agar. She told us that her factory sources red algae from super-clean waters off the coast of Chile. And she explained, just like with extracting gelatin, there’s a whole process for extracting agar from raw seaweed.
GRABER: First they take the seaweed and wash it repeatedly. Then they add chemicals that soften it. And then they bleach it so the once dark brown seaweed turns ghostly white.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: And then you boil it until we get the extraction.
TWILLEY: You might have inadvertently done this at home, if you’ve ever thrown some seaweed in with a pot of beans.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: So maybe sometime if you boil too long. You get that slimy texture? Yeah— that one is like the extract that we need.
TWILLEY: It takes hours, but eventually Won ends up with some slimy stuff to skim off the pots of boiling ghost seaweed. Then she dries that, grinds it up into powder, and hey presto: that’s agar. It’s a long, kind of stinky process, just like making gelatin.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: Once you enter the gate of the factory, then you can smell the seaweed— like the whole seaweed of the sea. LAUGHS. A very fishy sea.
GRABER: So how is a jelly made from agar different from one made from gelatin? Why might you choose one gelling agent over the other?
SHELKE: Gels made with proteins like gelatin tend to become creamy in your mouth as they are melting. Whereas if you take a gel that is made from a plant, they do not melt as easily.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: The texture is harder than Jell-O that you usually eat. And it’s more crunchy. It’s not soft, but it’s crunchy. And it gives some mouth feel of the water inside your mouth that make you feel fresh during the hot day.
TWILLEY: So this difference in melting temperature between gelatin and agar has pros and cons. You might not get that lovely melt in your mouth sensation with agar, but
SUTICHAVENGKUL: The advantage of agar over jelly is that it can stay in a room temperature, so that you don’t have to keep it in the refrigerator for a long time. You can let it stay in the room temperature—it still doesn’t melt.
GRABER: So it works better in a hot country like Thailand.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: Yes it is! LAUGHS.
GRABER: In Thailand, like Won told us, agar is mostly used in desserts. In other countries, it might be used to help add texture to soup, for example. But in America you’re most likely to find agar or carrageenan in a packaged food you might buy at the grocery store.
SHELKE: So if you had, for example, a very runny yogurt, you could add a little bit of jelling agent into it so that the yogurt now is a little thicker, stabilized, and appears to give a mouthfeel of greater creaminess, and leads people to believe that it’s actually fattier and tastier.
TWILLEY: The manufacturers of lowfat or diet versions of yogurt and ice cream LOVE jelling agents. All the creamy mouthfeel of fat, without the fat! But you can find carrageenan, agar, and gelatin on labels throughout the grocery store.
GRABER: Here’s one you might not expect: food producers add gelling agents to frozen foods. That way when the food thaws, it doesn’t leak water out, because the gelling agent captures that liquid.
SHELKE: And when reheated will give you that smooth consistency like that dish would have been if it was freshly made.
TWILLEY: These gelling agents even help in food processing—Kantha told us that apple juice manufacturers will use a gelling agent to help trap particles, to make the juice clear rather than cloudy.
GRABER: This is the reason why Guinness, the beer Guinness—it wasn’t vegan until really recently. They used a form of gelatin from fish, called isinglass, to filter their beer.
TWILLEY: Carrageenan and agar even count as dietary fiber, because they can’t be broken down in our guts—no wonder processed food makers love them. But not all agar finds its way into our stomachs.
SUTICHAVENGKUL: Currently in Thailand I sell to two main parts. First is in food business. And the other is in laboratory, so that they can grow the bacteria on the plate.
GRABER: This is probably the other most common use of agar, even though you might not know it if you don’t work in a lab. Agar totally transformed our understanding of microbes.
GRABER: In the very early days of microbiology, scientists were trying to help microbes grow so they could study them. A scientist named Walter Hesse in Germany in the early 1880s was trying to figure out the best food for microbes to put in in Julius Richard Petri’s new dishes. Walter’s wife Fanny Hesse also occasionally worked in the lab, and she saw that microbes loved gelatin, but gelatin melted too quickly.
TWILLEY: Fanny had heard about agar as a kid, growing up in New York City. She had a Dutch neighbor, who told her people in Indonesia used agar for jellies. So Fanny Hesse—this woman you’ve probably never heard of—she’s the one who suggested that agar might work for growing microbes. And it did! Which like Cynthia said, transformed microbiology. But all we hear about today is Mr Petri and his dishes. Bloody typical.
GRABER: But back to jellies. Nicky, are you ever going to tell us what happened to that jelly that you made with Sam?
TWILLEY: Oh, that’s right, I still have a jelly in the fridge! Back in London! It must be set by now.
GRABER: Time for the big reveal.
BOMPAS: What you’re aiming to do with unmolding them is just melting the finest layer on the outside—not too much, just enough to allow some air to get up inside it and release the mould. The less you melt the better the resolution is going to be so the more impressive it’s going to look.
GRABER: So how impressive was your jelly, Nicky?
TWILLEY: I was obviously shooting for •the most• impressive. First I dipped the outside of the mold into hot water just for a few seconds. That loosened it up.
BOMPAS: You kind of can’t get it wrong. There you go.
TWILLEY: Oh yeah.
BOMPAS: Onto the hand like a pro.
TWILLEY: I used my right hand to flip the mold upside down over my left hand. And the jelly popped out onto my palm. And then I was stuck.
TWILLEY: But why is it not coming off my hand?
BOMPAS: LAUGHTER. You might need to useyour other hand.
BOMPAS: That’s triumphant. LAUGHTER. That’s a really great jelly.
TWILLEY: It was not actually a great jelly, especially by the time I managed to get it off my hand and on a plate. But I still loved it.
BOMPAS: Jelly just has this ability to make people smile. And you know even after doing jelly for eleven years professionally, like I’m still entranced by it.
GRABER: Wait, so Sam has been a professional jellymonger—a word that, yes, he made up, nobody else does it—he’s been doing it for eleven years! How is that a real job?
TWILLEY: What happened was that Sam and Harry were friends, and they graduated from university, and where most people would have just got a normal job, they decided that what they wanted to do was set up a jelly company. So they did.
BOMPAS: Went to Borough Market and said, look, we’ve got this brilliant idea, we want to make fresh fruit jellies. And they didn’t even get back to us.
GRABER: Borough Market is an amazing huge artisanal food market under London Bridge. But being rejected by Borough Market didn’t discourage them.
TWILLEY: They built a website, they made some jellies for friend’s parties, but that wasn’t enough to fulfil their jelly ambitions.
BOMPAS: So when Harry and I started out we really wanted to challenge ourselves to make the ultimate jellies. So this is in 2008.It was the London Festival of Architecture and we thought we’d throw down to any architects: they could design a jelly and we’d make them.
TWILLEY: To their surprise, all the big name architects joined in, sending in their jelly designs. And before they knew it, Sam and Harry had made hundreds of custom jelly molds of all these buildings. They’d designed a special waggle table to display them, powered by a windshield wiper. They’d sold 2000 tickets to the grand opening. And they even had a special soundtrack.
BOMPAS: We recorded with New Scientist the sound of jelly wobbling, which sounded totally disgusting
JELLY WOBBLING SOUND
BOMPAS: And this went from being quite a sophisticated viewing of all these very vaunted architects and their jelly designs into an all-out jelly party-riot. We discovered that it doesn’t matter how salubrious your audience is, jellies will get thrown.
GRABER: Sam and Harry have never looked back. They’ve made a fifty-ton jelly to float a boat upon—it’s the world’s largest jelly, as it happens.
TWILLEY: They got past Ivan’s jelly size limitations by using the jelly to fill a dry dock, rather than trying to turn it out into a mold.
GRABER: They made a jelly vibrator for a wedding.
TWILLEY: They’ve made holographic jellies, glow-in-the-dark jellies, and jellies for high-end fashion shoots.
BOMPAS: We’ve done jellies at funerals, we’ve done jellies as art, so we did jelly at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
GRABER: This is a far cry from the Jell-O that I grew up with. Sam and Harry are bringing the high-end spectacle of jellies back.
TWILLEY: After all, jelly is light, it’s refreshing, it’s fun, and it can look truly amazing—it’s too good to be relegated to hospitals and kid party food.
GRABER: It allows you to take any flavors you want to make or combine, any colors, and take it all to a magical new place.
TWILLEY: I mean, maybe Sam and Harry are right and it’s time for a jelly revival.
BOMPAS: LAUGHS. It’s the easiest thing to do for like dinner party glory. Everyone’s dead impressed. If you make one from scratch, not using the premixed bags, it takes literally ten minutes and everyone’s going to be wowed.
TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to Sam Bompas and Rhian, the food and beverage manager at Bompas & Parr, who took me on a jelly quest in South London. Thanks also to the master, Ivan Day, and Allie Rowbottom, author of Jell-O Girls.
GRABER: Thanks also to Kantha Shelke and to our listener, Won. We’re so glad you wrote to us from Thailand!
TWILLEY: We have truly amazing photos of Ivan and Sam’s fabulous jellies as well as some of Won’s agar factory on our website, gastrropod dot com. Of course, if you subscribe to our email, you will have seen many of those already. If you don’t, why not? Sign up now.