The Jewish History of Jell-O

A brightly colored, jiggly agent of Americanization.

 

One of the most exciting parts of the extensive cookbook collection at AJHS is the assortment of fundraising cookbooks, crowd-sourced publications by local Jewish organizations that preserved culinary microhistories of individual households and their communities. A prime example is "Try ‘em You’ll Like ‘em," published in 1974 by the Frances Solovich chapter of B’nai B’rith Women. The cookbook boasts many charming features, including hand-illustrated title pages and truisms every few pages, like “Every one of us lives under one of two tents –Content or Dis-content” - the ‘live, laugh, love’ of 1974!

One particularly retro section caught my eye: Jell-O Molds. "Try ‘em You’ll Like ‘em" contains 14 Jell-O recipes in total, each credited to a different chapter member. At parties of the early/mid-twentieth century, Jell-O molds with fruit, candy or even savory items like pretzels or coleslaw suspended within were a trendy centerpiece.  I recreated Bea Fealk’s “Three Layered Jello Mold”, with tiers of strawberry and citrus Jell-Os containing peaches, pineapples, oranges, coconut and, believe it or not, sour cream. 

Gelatin, the basis of Jell-O, is not a modern invention.  Jellying is an ancient preservation technique that became popular in savory dishes of the Middle Ages. Early recipes for gefilte fish, where the collagen dissolving out of the fish during cooking, turned to gel during the cooling process for made the fish keep over Shabbat. By the 16th/17th centuries, jellies got sweeter and even shaped -- first in seashells, then in molds. 

Gelatin remained a delicacy into the 19th century but required days of hoof-boiling, and with the industrial revolution came pre-made sheets of gelatin that required only boiling water to prepare. In the 1890s, Pearle Wait from LeRoy, NY invented the granulated, sweetened, colored form we know as Jell-O. He sold it to his neighbor, Orator Woodward, for about $450.  Woodward’s rigorous marketing campaign soon resulted in one of the most iconic foods in American history! 

Eastern European Jewish immigrants were a major target of Jell-O’s advertising. In the 1910s, Jell-O published recipes in multiple languages, including Yiddish. In the 1920s, they employed the Joseph Jacobs advertising agency, which billed itself as being able to reach “the better classes of the otherwise unreachable Jewish-speaking people”. Ads for Jell-O then began to appear in the Jewish Morning Journal, the Jewish Daily Forward and the Day. Eventually, Jell-O, through Joseph Jacobs, was sponsoring Yiddish radio shows and getting celebrity endorsements from Jewish comics like Jack Benny, who hosted The Jello Show for eight years starting in the 1930s. 

At the same time that Jell-O was advertising in Yiddish, the brand was pushing an ‘all-American’ image. Starting in 1904, ads featured ‘The Jell-O Girl’, a cherubic blonde girl (four-year-old Elizabeth King) depicted in an elegant Victorian setting with the slogan “America’s Favorite Dessert”. These had a positive impact on sales, depicting Jell-O as a wholesome treat for the American upper-crust. 

Allie Rowbottom, a descendent of Orator Woodward, in Jello Girls: A Family History, claims Jell-O had deals with steamship companies to serve their product onboard to incoming European immigrants, and gave out free metal Jell-O molds at Ellis Island upon arrival. While I can’t find much historical scholarship to back up the claim that Ellis Island gave out kitchen equipment, I have often heard that Jell-O was served at Ellis Island. After enduring the long journey and navigating the stressful experience of Ellis Island, a mold for a dessert you’d never seen before would perhaps have seemed a peculiar souvenir.  Jell-O wouldn’t have resembled traditional foods from back home, not even the jellied ones. The dessert was a brightly colored, jiggly agent of Americanization. 

As Jewish newspapers ran advertisements for Jell-O, they were inundated with letters, all asking the same thing: is Jell-O kosher? This question, according to Roger Horowitz, historian and author of Kosher USA, marks “the single most controversial subject in modern kosher law”. The answer generally agreed upon until the early ‘50s was that gelatin was kosher based on ponim chadashos (a new face), which claimed that the product is completely transformed by the chemical manufacturing process.  In the 1950s, Orthodox rabbis declared that gelatin could never be kosher because of the non-kosher animals from which it is derived.  The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly endorsed a claim that gelatin is kosher in 1969, 5 years before "Try ‘em You’ll Like ‘em." Notably, Jell-O pretty much ignored the debate, continued advertising directly to Jewish customers, and printed a ‘K’ for kosher on its packaging, even without official certification. 

The gelatin controversy, of course, wasn’t just about Jell-O. At its heart were larger questions about Jewish tradition’s relationship to postwar American modernity and convenience.

When it comes to this recipe specifically, I can confirm that Jell-O molds are still a showstopper! My local supermarket doesn’t carry lemon Jell-O, so I substituted lime. That layer is mixed with sour cream, which cuts the sweetness of the other layers and produces a tang and texture a bit like frozen yogurt. 

As a millennial, my Jell-O experience is limited, and freeing the dessert from its mold required text messages to my mother for advice. I wonder if any of the women with recipes in "Try ‘em You’ll Like ‘em" ever received calls from their daughters -- “Mom, how do I get this thing out?” I wonder how many generations removed each of these women was from a newly arrived immigrant seeing Jell-O for the first time. We can’t access the family cookbooks that got us from Ellis Island to B’nai B’rith, but we can imagine the way that each family’s Jell-O recipe, dinner party menu, and relationship to ‘American food’ evolved over time. It should not be lost on us that the section immediately following “Jello Molds” is, in fact, “Traditionals”. 

THREE LAYERED JELLO MOLD

Ingredients:

1 (6 oz.) pkg. Strawberry Jell-O

1 (3 oz.) pkg. Lemon or Lime Jell-O

1 (6 oz.) pkg. Orange Jell-O

1 cup sour cream

1 (29 oz.) can peach halves 

Maraschino Cherries

1 (8 oz.) can crushed pineapple in pineapple juice (drained)

1 (15 oz.) can mandarin oranges (drained)

½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut or chopped nuts 

Instructions:

Prepare strawberry Jell-O according to package instructions and pour into large bundt pan or Jell-O mold. Let set until slightly gelled (about 2 hours).  

Place maraschino cherries into the cavities of the canned peach halves, and arrange around the edge of the pan, pressing gently into the Jell-O.  

Return the mold to the refrigerator as you prepare the lemon or lime Jell-O with 1cup boiling water. Cool. Mix 1 tbsp. Jell-O to the sour cream before adding to the cooled Jell-O and mixing well.  

Let set in refrigerator until partly gelled (about 90 minutes or until thick but not set) and add crushed pineapple, stirring gently to distribute. Pour over first mixture in Jell-O mold.  

Prepare orange Jell-O according to package directions and allow to set until partly gelled (about 2 hours).

Add mandarin oranges and coconut, stirring gently to distribute.  

Pour over second mixture in mold and place in refrigerator for at least 2 more hours, or overnight, until completely set.  

To release from mold, briefly lower mold into large bowl of hot water, and quickly turn onto serving dish.

Keep refrigerated until ready to serve! 



About the author:

*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Aurora loves to bake, and especially loves to put food in broader historical context  -- she catalogues her historical sweet tooth on Instagram at @historybakes.

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Yiddish Jell-O advertising image courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Recipe booklet, Jell-O, 1924. National Museum of American Jewish History, 2006.1.6257. Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana.

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