Multiple masterminds turned Jell-O into a famous dessert – Loveland Reporter-Herald
Inspiration comes in a curious way. As my editor and I were discussing, via email, possible titles for my previous disco column, she mentioned that a friend had written an unflattering disco column with a politically incorrect title.
He received a critical response stating that his “brains were rubberier than generic Jell-O”.
Well, that conjured up an interesting image for me that I had to pursue. And as my research reflected, technicians at St. Jerome Hospital had performed an experiment where they tested a bowl of lime Jell-O with an EEG. Believe it or not (and I do), the stirred bowl of Jell-O had identical brain waves to adult men and women.
We can infer from this experience that the reviewer may have been right in his assessment of the disco writer. Having never met the writer, I cannot comment.
The research piqued my interest so I wandered down memory lane to find out the origin of Jell-O.
In 1845, an industrialist named Peter Cooper obtained a patent for powdered gelatin. Cooper also built America’s first steam locomotive, so we don’t know why he messed around with gelatin. It was easy to make and useful in the kitchen, but he gave up his patent and played with his train.
Pete simply capitalized on something that had been around since the 15th century, albeit in a different form.
Gelatin was first produced by extracting collagen from boiled bones, connective tissues and other animal products (don’t ask, I won’t tell).
It was sold in sheets and had to be purified, a time-consuming process. Thus, gelatin desserts were mostly on the tables of royalty and the wealthy classes. That is, until Pete makes his breakthrough.
The lack of a good marketing campaign kept gelatin shaking until 1897. At that time, a carpenter from LeRoy, New York, Pearle Wait, was developing a cough remedy and a laxative tea at home – don’t consider not even the result of its process if the cough remedy part does not work.
Well, Pearle’s gelatin-based concoction yielded a fruit-flavored dessert, which his wife, May, named Jell-O. She added strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon flavors to the granulated gelatin and sugar (sugar was important).
Pearle was better with a hammer and nails than as a distributor, so he gave up in frustration and sold the brand to Orator – yes, that was his first name, he should have been a minister – Frank Woodward in 1899.
Orator’s company, Genesee Pure Food Co., was already producing the best-selling “Grain-O” health drink.
Genesee mounted an advertising campaign and within two years sales of Jell-O reached $250,000, a lot of money in 1902.
The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed Jell-O as “America’s most famous dessert” – ignoring the sundaes.
It certainly boosted sales of Jell-O, but the big hit came when Genesee sent “armies” of salespeople into the field to hand out free Jell-O cookbooks – what was tricky in making Jell-O?
This tactic worked, and Genesee added three new flavors: Chocolate (discontinued in 1927), Cherry, and Peach.
As events unfolded, big companies swallowed up smaller ones as Genesee merged with Postum, which acquired Birdseye’s frozen foods, to form General Foods Corp.
In 1930, the company introduced lime to supplement other things cooks added to aspics and salads such as cabbage, green peppers, celery, and sometimes cooked pasta.
Then, in a marketing masterstroke, Jell-O made Jack Benny the spokesperson for the dessert.
Jack’s musical director wrote the jingle spelling “JELLO” that dominated the company’s advertising for several decades.
Nothing succeeds better than success, so in 1934 Jell-O released instant puddings starting with chocolate (how could they be wrong?) followed by vanilla, tapioca, butterscotch, coconut and liver (no, just kidding).
There was no end to the creativity of the ingredients for Jell-O as marshmallows (contained in almost all Lutheran side salads) and almonds were added.
The Des Moines Register published a recipe for Tomato Soup Gelatin Salad, served cold (slides in easily).
Baby boomers jumped on the Jell-O bandwagon – it was easy and cheap – boil some water, add the powdered Jell-O, refrigerate and you have something (which was mostly sugar and artificial flavors).
For future use, note that sinking fruits are: seedless grapes, fruits in heavy syrup such as cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, and pineapple. Fruits that float are: apples, bananas, orange and grapefruit slices, peach and pear slices, things wrapped in light syrup.
Sports found their way into the Jell-O mold as some bars (dives) featured women in Jell-O wrestling contests (not a real sport).
I’ll conclude with a strange statistic (who respects this data?): Residents of Salt Lake City consume more lime-flavored gelatin than any other city in the United States.
In the meantime, let’s go back to an original premise, that of the brainwaves of many men and women having the same brainwaves as a bowl of Jell-O. You may know some of them or at least have read their letters to the editor.