︎︎︎episode 51

Nostalgic Food Trends : Getting Jiggly With It

Aug 3rd, 2021

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So Kim, have you ever been to a gender reveal party?

According to the internet, the first ever gender reveal party happened in 2008, Jenna Myers Karvunidis was determined to get her family “jazzed up” about her first baby. After the recent, much-anticipated birth of her nephew, her husband’s family were less excited about this next grandchild and, with her own family emotionally and physically distant, Karvunidis came up with the then-novel idea of a theatrical reveal of her baby’s sex.  So she baked two different cakes, one with a pink inside, and another that was blue.  Her midwife offered up the right one on the day of the party.  Initially Karvundis’s family wasn’t thrilled about meeting up in the middle of the week for some silly gender reveal cake situation, but as she told the Guardian, “There were gasps, tears and someone shrieked: ‘I feel like she’s been born!’”

She wrote about this event for her personal blog High Gloss and Sauce, and soon the story was picked up by a popular pregnancy magazine and soon it was nationwide news.   Gender reveal parties became part of the $200-$1000 that couples spend on their baby showers! 

Wikipedia has a very un-amusing list of gender reveal parties gone awry:

  • The 2017 Sawmill Fire in Arizona was caused by a gender-reveal party that combined blue powder and an explosive. Other dangerous stunts have involved fireworks and alligators.
  • In 2018, "Gender reveal burnouts", in which cars emit billowing clouds of pink or blue smoke, became a popular fad. The Queensland Police Service warns that this practice is dangerous, and that there have been a number of attempted "burnouts" that resulted in flaming vehicles and arrests.
  • In September 2019, there was a plane crash in Turkey, Texas when a low-flying crop duster was attempting to drop 350 gallons of colored water for a reveal. The pilot was not injured and the passenger received minor injuries.
  • In October 2019, an Iowa woman was killed by debris from the explosion of a homemade device meant to reveal her grandchild's gender.
  • In September 2020, a gender-reveal pyrotechnic device started the El Dorado Fire near Yucaipa, California, destroying homes, prompting evacuations, burning thousands of acres, and causing the death of one firefighter.
  • On February 21, 2021, the accidental explosion of an in-development gender reveal device in Liberty, New York killed the father-to-be and injured his younger brother
  • On March 29, 2021, two people were killed when a plane crashed in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Mexico while carrying a trailing sign that read "It's a girl!"
  • On April 20, 2021, 80 pounds of tannerite were detonated during a gender reveal party near Kingston, New Hampshire, causing mild to moderate damage to buildings surrounding the radius of the explosion.
  • On May 31, 2021, a gender reveal party near Fort McMurray, Alberta burned half a hectare of forest after shooting an exploding target.

Also, can we just agree that being hung up on binary gender for your child is cheugy AF? 

“I feel like the guy who invented gunpowder,” Karvundis now says. “I’m the one who put the form to it. I’m the one who said: ‘This is something we’re going to celebrate now, and this is how we’re going to do it’. I put it out there.”

So Kim, I know you love shrimp. I wanted to see how you feel about this dish.  It contains shrimp (cooked or canned), chili sauce, lemon juice, pickled relish, sugar, and unflavored gelatin.  It’s called Shrimp Chili Mold and it serves 6!

Well, I know you love a salad (so do I), so how about this:  carrots, celery, spinach, scallions, lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, and...gelatin?

In 2000, Utah named Jell-O as the state’s favorite snack food. They declared “Jell-O Week” (February 12-18) and  they took it a step further, by  handing out a souvenir green Jell-O pin at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

We tend to think of mid century america when we think of gelatinous foods...we certainly think of Jell-o and its jigglers.  All-in-all, a nice gelatin mold feels like a 20th century invention.

But actually gelatin has trended at all other times in history. And yes, that’s right...gelatin is a trendy food!  Gelatin first had its moment in medieval Europe, where jellied dishes were a food of the elite. And we’re talking elaborate, molded centerpieces.  But only the wealthiest families would have these sorts of jellied masterpieces because making gelatin was no easy feat...forget even the artistry of the mold.  No one could open a packet of Knox or cherry jell-o and get down to business...they had to make their own gelatin, which involved, well...some gross business:

"Take out the great Bones of four Calves Feet, and put the Feet into a Pot with ten Quarts of Water, three Ounces of Hartshorn, three Ounces of Isinglass, a Nutmeg quarter'd, four Blades of Mace; then boil this till it comes to two Quarts, and strain it through a Flannel-Bag, let it stand twenty-four Hours, then scrape all the Fat from the Top very clean, then slice it, and put to it the Whites of six Eggs beaten to Froth, boil it a little, and strain it again through a Flannel-Bag, then run the Jelly into little high Glasses...You may add Orange-flower Water, or Wine and Sugar, and Lemon if you please, but this is all Fancy. (Quoted in Richard Sax, Classic Home Desserts)"

This entire process took hours and days, so rolling out the jellied centerpieces was something you did when you wanted to impress guests with your massive staff, a staff so big, that it had time to make gelatin.  Because if it’s not obvious enough here, big staff=super rich.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, there were gelatin molds at this time, although they tended to be ceramic.  Metal molds would arrive in the 1800s, because yes, gelatin was on trend for a couple of hundred years...I guess trends just moved a lot more slowly back then.

One popular form of jelly/gelatin in this era was flummery, a jelly made by steeping oatmeal in water overnight and boiling the strained liquor with sugar. This had an opaque, creamy look.

And lest you think elaborate jellies were just a european delicacy, American’s wealthiest families were also serving fancy jello molds to their guests, too.  In 19th century New York City, the richest families showed off the size of their large staffs via elaborate gelatin centerpieces.  In the south, plantation owners had their enslaved cooks churning out gelatin molds, too.   Thomas Jefferson liked to serve Wine Jellies to his guests at Monticello.  Some say that he had a more “gourmet” palate thanks to his time spent in France.  The recipe for these wine jellies (which you can easily make today) contained sherry, cinnamon, nutmeg and egg whites.  They remind me of a port and chocolate jello shot that I made a few years ago.  I feel very uncool mentioning Thomas Jefferson because after all, he literally owned enslaved people but I do like the sound of these wine jellies.

Food historians consider the 19th century to be the golden era of jellied foods, as new metal molds allowed for more complex shapes and artisans were practicing complicated striping called Russian Jelly:

“Take one quart of Lemon Jelly, and when cool add two wineglasses of Kirsch liqueur or syrup and one wineglass of brandy; divide it into three portions, colour one with liquid carmine, one with a very little sap green and leave the remaining part plain; whip these separately till frothy throughout, and when nearly set pour them into any fancy mould that is resting in a little ice in alternate layers, and leave it on ice till ready to serve; then dip the mould into warm water, turn out on a dish-paper, and serve for a fancy sweet for dinner, luncheon, etc”

From Agnes B. Marshall, Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes (London: 1880s)

Agnes Marshall wrote two books of elaborate gelatin recipes--both sweet and savory--and she sold the necessary molds which she sold in her store.  Her target customers would have been upper and upper middle class women married to professional men, as those households would have had a large enough domestic staff to make time to make these elaborate dishes.  So once again, gelatin remains a food for the well-heeled.

And to be clear, gelatinizing just about anything was a wild trend for these women.  In the Victorian era, everyone was obsessed with tidiness, and even a salad could give someone the vapors just thinking about the chance that a few errant lettuce leaves would escape off the plate and on to the table. The solution:  just stick that salad in gelatin.  Boom! Neat and clean!  As food historian Laura Shapiro wrote in her book Perfection Salad, "A salad at last in control of itself."

The world of jello foods took a leap forward in 1845, when Peter Cooper patented the first powdered unflavored gelatin, making gelatin accessible to anyone at any income level. This was a pivotal time in the US, as the Industrial Revolution was moving more and more families from farms to cities, as they began working in factories and other businesses.  This shift away from a primarily agricultural economy caused a major shift in food systems, as Americans bought more of their food from stores than just growing it themselves.  And processed foods like cereals and canned vegetables were picking up popularity.

Savory molds like cucumber mousse, tomato aspic and glacé fish mold were just as popular as sweet dessert versions. They were flavored with beef broth, tomato juice, lemon juice, etc. And wives could use gelatin to extend their leftovers.  Have some leftover vegetables and pieces of cod left from Friday’s dinner?  Add some gelatin and maybe some tomato juice and voila! Saturday’s lunch!

But then in 1897, a man named Pearle Bixby Wait, a carpenter-slash-cough syrup manufacturer, trademarked a gelatin dessert and named it “Jell-O”’   He and his wife Mary created new flavors like strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon.  Basically the classics of the of the Jell-O catalog.

At the same time, another company, the Genesee Pure Food Company was making another, very different and somewhat confusing food product called “Grain-O.”

I found an ad from a 19th century newspaper that alleged to explain what Grain-O was:

“Grain-O! Remember that name when you want a delicious, appetizing, nourishing food drink to take the place of coffee. Sold by all grocers and liked by all who have used it. Grain-O is made of pure grain, it aids digestion and strengthens the nerves. It is not a stimulant but a health builder and the children as well as the adults can drink it with great benefit. Costs about as much as coffee.”

I suspect Grain-O would have been completely forgotten with time if it weren’t for this:  the Genesee Pure Food Company bought Jell-O from Wait. And with their innovations in production and packaging, they were able to turn Jell-O into a household name.  Plus, they killed it at the marketing game (although I’m not sure we could have guessed that from their Grain-O ads).  In 1902, Genesee began marketing Jell-O as “America’s Most Famous Dessert,” so taking a left turn away from all of those congealed salads of the victorian era.  The introduced new flavors like chocolate, cherry, and peach.  They handed out free Jell-O cookbooks.   And their advertisements contained recipes and celebrity testimonials from people like Ethel Barrymore, the grand-aunt of Drew Barrymore.

And this new and improved Jell-o was a hit with early 20th century homemakers! Thanks to the introduction of gas stoves, electric irons, the telephone...women of this era prioritized clean, tidy, sanitary, efficient cooking and housework.  This new Jell-O was great because it was fast, it felt sterile and safe, and it was an affordable way to feed their families. 

I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Charles B. Knox of Johnstown, NY, who invented a method of granulating gelatin--the first commercial gelatins came in sheets--that sped up the process and made the outcome a lot more successful in terms of “setting.”  His product was unsurprisingly known as Knox Gelatin. According to the Knox website, “From brash slogans to innovative advertising, his unorthodox ways earned him the title of ‘the Napoleon of Advertising’ and a successful business.  In 1904, one of these “innovative” things he did was promote cooking with Knox gelatin at the World’s Fair, which was sort of like sponsoring Coachella or something.    The next year, Mrs. John Cooke of New Castle, Pennsylvania, won third prize in a Knox-sponsored cooking contest with a recipe she called "Perfection Salad": "an aspic filled with finely chopped cabbage, celery, and red pepper, .” Btw, this was suspended in lemon flavored gelatin, and Mrs. Cooke recommended serving it with mayonnaise.   At one point Better Homes and Gardens declared that it was one of the “great recipes of all time.” James Beard would  observe in the 1972 edition of James Beard's American Cookery, that Mrs. Cooke's victory had "unleashed a demand for congealed salads that has grown alarmingly, particularly in the suburbs." But he also had to admit  that "the jellied salad does have its delights, though, and it is without question an American innovation."

In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed after the entire US population vomited and shuddered over the revelations laid out in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  This legislation included mandatory labels/ingredients and it created would be come to be known as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  This made packaged food even more popular than ever.  Previously, shoppers would buy their flour, sugar, seasonings, etc from dry goods stores where they measured out from bulk bins.  Modern 20th century homemakers saw this as both olde-timey and unsafe.  So processed food manufacturers doubled down on advertising their foods as “pure” and “safe.” Jell-O ads of that era emphasized the waxed paper “safety bag” and its pure contents.  In 1908, ads began featuring the “Jell-O girl” (who was drawn Rose O'Neill, the creator of the Kewpie Doll).  The Jell-O girl further reinforced this idea of purity.  Other ads told shoppers that they could serve their families the same thing that rich people were eating for a mere 10 cents a box!

Sugar and therefore Jell-O were rationed during both World Wars, but in that period in-between (the 20s-30s), sales of Jell-O soared as the company introduced the most versatile flavor yet:  lime!  Entire recipe books popped up using lime jello, and say some vinegar and you know, whatever else you had lying around.  Gelatin molds were seen as “refreshing” and “light fare” for ladies.  In fact, Knox even published a recipe book called “Dainty Desserts for Dainty People.”

And oh, this is a good time to tell you that Charles Knox died in 1908, leaving his wife, Rose Knox to run his company.  According to the Knox website:

“She set up a test kitchen and developed hundreds of recipes which were printed on Knox® packages, on leaflets and in illustrated cookbooks. They also appeared in newspapers and magazines under the heading ‘Mrs. Knox says…’ It was through her efforts that gelatine evolved from a delicacy and invalid food into a common household staple.

In 1923, Genesee Pure Food Company launched artificially sweetened Jell-O called D-Zerta. In 1925, they merged with another coffee substitute brand called Postum...and they acquired frozen food company General Foods Corporation. Now there’s a modern name that we know!

Through World War II, Jell-O and Knox remained relevant by urging women that despite the rations, they could still treat their guests to beautiful and nutritious meals using gelatin. One suggested recipe?   "Olive Relish" (olives, pickles, celery, and vinegar in lime Jell-O)

But after the war, we began the mid-century gelatin madness that we know and recognize today.  And really, this is when a lot of the packaged and processed foods that became staples for generations really took off.  We are going to talk about those in the next episode!  During the war, many companies had been churning out packaged, instant, canned, and highly processed foods specifically for feeding soldiers.  And they didn’t want to stop! So instead they decided to market these same foods as safe, wholesome, and convenient options for the busy housewife.    Jell-O was no exception here, offering new “savory” flavors of Jell-O to its customers, like mixed vegetable, celery, seasoned tomato, and italian salad.  This is a good time to tell you something really gross:  in previous decades, despite only sweet “fruit” flavors of Jell-O being available, homemakers were opting to use those often in place of the slightly less convenient mix of say Knox unflavored gelatin and tomato juice or broth...in SAVORY GELATIN MOLDS.  So you might have pasta salad in say, lemon Jell-O. 

Mid century housewives loved the convenience and perceived safety and nutrition of all of these convenience foods (like Jell-O), but they also worried about being seen as lazy or not trying hard enough.  A wife’s primary job was to care for her family by serving them food made with love, and in their minds love=effort.   A 1950 study measured housewives' feelings about convenience foods by asking them to compare a wife who bought Nescafé instant coffee and one who brewed Maxwell House. They rated a woman who resorted to instant products as "lazy, disorganized...and a bad wife."  So what did women do? They added a bunch of work back into these instant foods by using them as  a jump off for making more complicated dishes!  And brands LIKED this, because they could publish entire cookbooks that used only name brand products.  I have a bunch of these (because I love them), like a Lea + Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce cookbook called “100 ways to be original in your cooking.”  Royal instant puddings, “Royal Recipes.” including a nightmare  Jellied Salmon Salad, Pillsbury’s “Sweet ‘n Thin Cookbook,” which promises “159 calorie saving recipes,” and of course , the Knox Gelatine cookbook, entirely filled with gelatinized versions of Shrimp Cocktail, Pea Soup, and Crab Louie.

Poppy Cannon became famous for her “Can Opener Cookbook” in 1951, saying:

“At one time a badge of shame, hallmark of the lazy lady and the careless wife, today the can opener is fast becoming a magic wand, especially in the hands of those brave, young women, nine million of them (give or take a few thousand here and there), who are engaged in frying as well as bringing home the bacon.”

Her cookbook contained recipes like “Frizzled Ham with Bananas Haitian” (canned ham, bananas, rum, butter),  and “Lucanian Eggs Au Gratin” (eggs, canned macaroni and cheese). Just nightmarish stuff that involved opening a lot of cans...not unlike the “Dump” meals cookbooks of the aughties...I used to be obsessed with browsing those at Walgreens, because for some reason, they always had the full collection.

I recently acquired the Knox On-Camera Recipes (a completely new guide to Gel-Cookery), and it is filled with some bangers:
  • Cottage Cheese and Kidney Bean Salad (includes french dressing and cabbage)
  • Corned Beef and Slaw Salad
  • Molded Avocado and Tuna (best served as a loaf)
  • Chicken and Pineapple Mousse
  • Molded Macaroni and Cheese (includes celery)

In the 70s, people fell out of love with this kind of packaged food witchcraft.  For one, with health food becoming a fad,  the sugary-ness of fruity Jell-O fell out of favor, despite the company’s promise that “there’s always for Jell-O.”  And for working moms, there were so many more foods that were way more convenient than Jell-O, like Hamburger Helper, TV dinners, and Kraft macaroni and cheese...which we will be talking about in our next episode.  .So Jell-O shifted into marketing its desserts, like its instant puddings, and later in the 80s, pudding pops and individual Jell-O and pudding snacks for lunches.

But gelatinous treats haven’t totally disappeared...they have re-entered our rotation of foods by the way of Asia:  with tapioca balls in bubble tea and mochi.