My friend Gary gifted me an old book his ex wife left behind. Gary, his partner Linda and I had discussed the subject of this book several times in a dive bar with some hilarious nostalgia.
I opened the slim hardback New Joys of Jello. Hardback! That alone should have tipped me off to the tome’s delicious historical value I opened the New Joys of Jello and thus opened a slippery portal that transported me to 1979 when Jello was King, Queen, Jester, cool, far out, groovy and…yes, sexy. It was also that brief moment in time when Jello escaped Christian potlucks, funerals and holiday gatherings to get out and strut. Oh yes, what a golden gelatinous era that was—Jello could get you laid! Let me repeat that in all caps: JELLO COULD GET YOU LAID! I might add it was a time when one could eat the equivalent of a ham and egg sandwich in the form of a Jello dish with actual ham and egg suspended inside. Now that dish might not have gotten you laid at a swingers party, but it would have got you somewhere. I might also add that certain Jello dishes might have even made you better pass bowel movements, and in a suave way, too! Nothing like a laxative served in sherbet glasses!
It occurs to me that I am most likely the only writer in the world writing about the halcyon days of Jello.
It also occurs to me that if you are an American of a certain generation, you will have a good or bad Jello story. God do I have one! It involved green Jello and a booze cruise, I think. I was pretty drunk at the time.
I might add that a story about something that happened in connection to consuming Jello shots (a total vulgarity of a phrase) in a bar or party or camp out is not a Jello story that interests me in the least. Those are fraternity and fishermen stories of Fireball-infused Jello that bore me to death. They are not sexy or suave like Jello once was.
So on with the New Joys of Jello Chronicles, which will chronicle my mind meandering through this choice little book to speculate here and there where we once were as a culture and where we are now.
A side note to this essay: I haven’t eaten Jello in over 25 years and have never consumed a Jello shot.
The New Joys of Jello begins with a lemony gold paragraph:
The joys of Jello gelatin are never ending. The same Jello gelatin that made a cool dessert many years ago is still a shimmering example of versatility. Make it simple or elegant. Make it dessert or salad. Make it for family or for special occasion. In any form, Jello gelatin has a light, refreshing, fresh fruity taste.
No writer of this brilliant passage is credited. I liked this omission as a crime against the literature of food. Who was this literary genius of Jello?
The premise of this book is obvious: Jello should go into everything edible because it makes everything more colorful and fun, including the following recipe, which I conclude must have been intended as a laxative.
Jellied Prune Whip
1 package Jello (orange or lemon)
1 cup boiling water
¾ cup cold water
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon grated orange rind
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ cups chopped prune pulp
I’ll spare you all the cooking directions and just hit the highlights:
“Fold prune pulp into whipped gelatin…pile into sherbet glasses…serve with custard sauce or light cream…”
They forgot to add, “Consume, wait several hours, and then dump elegantly and comfortably…”
The New Joys of Jello (as opposed to the old joys) is positively giddy about demonstrating creative ways to integrate jello into every element of cuisine, and as shown above, maintaining personal health. The inventors of these recipes, (who were these mad chefs working secretly in gleaming test kitchens?) even presented ways to party with Jello, I mean really party with panache. This idea seemingly started out with good intentions, but somewhere along the line, devolved into the cultural horror now practiced gracelessly around America known as the Jello shot.
Look at this couple in this gauzy photograph. Look at their outfits. Look at what they’re bringing to a dinner or key party in 1979!
Here is the recipe for the “dessert” she offers up after he rang the doorbell that would lead to their gaining access to a suburban house of pleasure, pleasure made possible in part by Jello!
1 pint strawberries, washed and stemmed
2 tablespoons sugar
2 packages strawberry Jello
2 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons Cointreau or Curacao liqueur
2 cups Cool Whip
There is no need to elaborate on the directions of preparation. There is however, a little note at the end that encourages the maker of this boozy gelatinous delight to double the recipe when it comes to the amount of alcohol. Well, why the hell not? It was 1979 and Jimmy Carter was President. How about triple the amount? Why the hell not? He was turning down the thermostat in the White House and asking Americans to sacrifice, wear sweaters and drive cars that got 18 miles to the gallon.
What this Strawberries Romanoff (and why Romanoff, with its murdered Czar family connotations?) concoction amounted to is a gigantic Jello shot that quite possibly intoxicated the entire dinner party and had them rolling around on the shag carpet in the throes of an orgy.
But I must remind you, these beautiful and lusty people were consuming their Jello “shots” garnished with mint sprigs with fine cutlery from parfait glasses instead of downing them from paper pill dispensers like the ones the lunatics used in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!
That’s how far America has gone down the toilet since 1979. Zero class. More class oppression.
And of course, something utterly profane and revolting as Jello wrestling in the strip clubs came along in the 80s. We really hit rock bottom with that gimmick.
It is conceivable that this little book is the genesis for the crude cultural vulgarity later known as the Jello shot. On this very page! With this very recipe!
Oh what a moment to encounter dynamic social history at its source!
Another chapter with bright photographs: Look at this family. Look at their happiness eating a Jello confection and drinking milk around a large dining room table and talking and laughing. This must be the dessert after a meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green beans dinner.
Was it really ever like that in 1979? Or is Jello merely the fantasy and the aspiration here? Jello as aspiration! How glorious!
What would the kids have thought if they had known Jello comes from cow bones, hides and hooves? I certainly wasn’t aware of that as a Jello-eating kid in the 70s. I doubt my mother knew. But I don’t think it would have made any difference if she had known.
Did you know that there exists a vegan Jello product with a red algae substituting for cow parts? There is. The internet said so.
I want to try it! I want to make one of these classic swinging Jello recipes from 1979 with red algae. Didn’t I read somewhere that eating algae and seaweed is supposed to enhance your brain’s ability to function? I know I did somewhere and it wasn’t on the internet.
Oh to show at a party with a scrumptious algae Jello dish in a crystal curvaceous mold resting on a silver platter! The party-goers would be awestruck. Maybe slip some psilocybin mushrooms (finely grated) into the juicy depths of the fake gelatin and see where that party goes! It could be the reinvention of the sexy Jello party.
I think I’ll make this recipe:
Vegan Turkey-Souffle Magic Salad
1 package lemon or lime red algae Jello
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water
½ cup cold water
¼ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated onion
Dash of pepper
1 ½ cups diced tofu turkey
1/3 cup chopped magic mushrooms
1/3 cup chopped celery or green pepper
2 tablespoons chopped pimiento
Another chapter. Another faded photograph. I can’t fathom this image. It is beyond my ability as a thinker or cultural historian or amateur American Jello sociologist.
Let us consider it and speculate: a stylish Black couple has just been married in front of an old church. He is drinking champagne. She is beaming and holding a bouquet. Damn they look great! His or her daughter or a flower girl is smiling at the couple. A wedding feast of mostly wondrous Jello dishes is set out beautifully on a table with a lace tablecloth. The guests are about ready to dig in and celebrate the nuptials. Two of the dishes are called Creamy Bleu Cheese Salad and Salmon Dill Mousse. Some of their ingredients include lemon Jello, a can of salmon, dill and paprika, and I will leave it at that. Can you imagine consuming this before consummating a marriage?
Were these Jello dishes the desire of the couple or Jello mad caterers? You think they ate this stuff after the photo shoot or just drank all the champagne and let the kid smash the Jello dishes out in the parking lot?
Was this an appeal by the Jello cooks and promoters for racial diversity in all things Jello in 1979? If it was, it seems almost visionary.
What were the demographics of Jello in this era? It almost goes without thinking that Jello was suburban White food, or it does to me. I don’t know why, perhaps because initially, before finding this book, I associated Jello with Dwight Eisenhower, Donna Reed, segregation and funereal receptions with open caskets.
Speaking of demographics, was Jello favored by straights or gays in this era? Is there any way of knowing this? These Jello concoctions presented in this book seem like such theatrical dishes, not that there’s anything wrong with that as Seinfeld might have put it.
There needs to be a massive sociological investigation into the world of Jello. We must know everything about it and its appeal. Once the results are in, I see a Broadway musical about Jello.
A question just occurred to me: did Jello surge in popularity during the Pandemic lockdown? To many people of a certain age, Jello was the ultimate comfort, fun food of their youth, and did they return to it as the virus tore through the world? Were there new and bizarre recipes for Jello during lockdown? I must know!
Turn the page and another arresting photograph. Imagine attending this party in 1979. Every Jello dish is loaded with three kinds of booze, including one laced with Cointreau. People are sexy and lean. They aren’t wearing football jerseys and yoga pants. They flow about the room and the furniture is plush. Check the mustachioed man in the background: he’s wearing a corduroy blazer! Dude will score! Maybe twice in one night once the Jello lubes everyone at the party and the music of Chic comes on and they clear out the living room for a shag carpet dance floor and that Japanese tube amplifier pipes warms sounds to the huge Swedish speakers. They will, I think the historical term for it is, boogie.
The broom closet will certainly get a work out.
Do contemporary adults attend parties like this, sans the Jello of course? I mean, even pre Pandemic?
Does anyone boogie anymore?
Does anyone wear a corduroy blazer to a party anymore, I mean without trying to hit a note of irony?
Are dinner parties as a cultural custom as dead as bowling leagues and playing bridge?
Oh what a joy to see people socializing and not using a phone! I cut this photograph and framed it as a reminder of quieter, smoother days when time moved like Jello.
What did these people talk about at this party? Inflation? The Iran hostages? Jello? I bet people talked in longer sentences back then and they all had little black books.
Now let me conclude these Jello chronicles with a brief Jello story from my wayward youth told in the opaque mysterious style of the great Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolaño. If you’ve never read his books, you should.
I was 22 or 28. I was living in Portland in either a ramshackle house with five roommates in the Sellwood neighborhood or living alone in a dingy downtown studio apartment. I was either on a stern wheeler booze cruise rippling the Willamette River or at some singles bar on NW 21st or 23rd Ave. Both venues were utterly without irony. There was no irony in Portland then.
She wore a green dress and had long brown hair. I met her on the boat or at the bar. She was engaged to be married and in fact, it was the night of her bachelorette party! We ended up together at her apartment and there was either green or orange Jello involved in foreplay.
And that’s the whole story. And the last time Jello entered my life, but I think it will again soon as I begin to write about a period in my life when I was a missionary kid in Brazil 50 years ago and I recall a dish of shrimp suspended in Jello that my mother made for the Christians.