This Is Not Your Grandmother's Jell-O Surprise

Published in Gourmet Live 10.05.11
Robert Sietsema investigates the state of the art in gelatin, a wobbly medium for wobbly times

“View From Alcatraz” from the San Francisco in Jell-O series, Photograph, by Liz Hickok

You probably harbor all sorts of negative opinions about Jell-O. This colorful and jiggly substance was invented in 1897 by a LeRoy, New York, carpenter named Pearle Wait, who sought to make a combination cough syrup and laxative tea, and stumbled upon a gelatin-thickened dessert instead. His wife, May, named it Jell-O.

Fast-forward a few decades, and the Jell-O brand—then belonging to General Foods, today to Kraft—had become the subject of one of the cleverest and most intensive marketing campaigns in history. Amid much hoopla, a 4-year-old Jell-O Girl made personal appearances, while colorful print ads by such renowned artists as Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell lent the product a classy image. Jack Benny became the radio spokesman, and come the ’70s, Bill Cosby replaced him on TV. Somewhere along the way, the box of sticky hygroscopic powder was promoted not only as a dessert but as a salad, too, and took its place in thousands of salad bars across the country.

But the nutrition-conscious 1980s were not kind to the wiggly compound. It was noted that, for starters, it really wasn’t a salad at all. Moreover, the product was loaded with refined sugar and artificial color. And, while the gelatin it contained was technically a protein, and good for your fingernails, the source of that protein turned out to be dodgy animal renderings—hence, Jell-O couldn’t even qualify as vegetarian. As a final coup de grâce in the decade that followed, Jell-O became associated with booze, as college students downed Jell-O shots laced with high-proof alcohol. But even in its darkest days, Jell-O’s salvation was in the offing, and only a matter of time.

In 2004, California painter and sculptor Liz Hickok wanted to make a translucent 3-D representation of the city of San Francisco, and she naturally turned to polyester resin as her material of choice, due to its ability to absorb color and transmit light. But resin has one giant drawback: It produces dangerous fumes as it sets. Featured in the Marin Independent Journal in 2008, Hickok traced the evolution of her process: “Instead of using resin, which was my first choice, but is very toxic and difficult to use, I stumbled upon the idea of Jell-O. This fragile and impermanent material, which we typically associate with childhood memories, has proved to be a very poetic expression of the city.” At first she constructed her colorful buildings out of cut cubes of Jell-O; later she turned to molds she fabricated herself. To commemorate the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Hickok used a Jell-O cityscape to stage a reenactment. The shaking of the sculpture proved almost too convincing.

While Hickok was reconciled to the ephemeral (read: perishable) nature of the dessert as a medium, at about the same time, New York–based sculptor Daniel Wurtzel was not. According to his own account, he reformulated the product to make it more durable, calling on food scientists from both Kraft and Knox (another manufacturer of gelatin desserts) to assist him. The more-permanent artistic material he created he calls “doctored Jell-O,” and the formula is a secret. Wurtzel has successfully stored cubes of it in his Brooklyn studio for at least six years.

“I’d been making sculpture in traditional materials,” Wurtzel explains, “but I wanted to be totally free to make sculpture from anything—chewing gum, nose hairs, anything. I had this idea I’d make sculptures out of Jell-O. It’s an obvious idea.” The artist shaped his jellied substance into giant geometric forms, so that the sense of pure color and volume predominated. Viewers at his 2004 show at the Green Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, were encouraged to touch the pieces and make them jiggle. Some works weighed as much as 300 pounds.

Wurtzel and Hickok used molds to create their sculptures, but the underpinnings of this practice are hardly new: Housewives have been using molds for the product “almost since it was invented,” Wurtzel notes. In the Victorian era, a mania for molded foods like blancmange and jellied calves’ feet had prompted the manufacture of copper and tin forms, some quite elaborate. These were pressed into service again, about the time of the Great Depression, for Jell-O. Food historian Richard J. Hooker offers a reason for the product’s increasing popularity in his book Food and Drink in America: “Both light and cheap, it was suited to a time of spreading urbanism and recurrent economic troubles.”

Jell-O reached its culinary apotheosis in the 1950s and ’60s when—molded, dotted with canned fruit, mixed with cream cheese, and crowned with Cool Whip—it was a frequent centerpiece on the dinner table, or a conversation starter at parties. In the 1980s, Jell-O as a sculptured material reemerged as Jigglers, a recipe variation Kraft Foods promoted for shaping with cookie cutters. Thus, Jigglers could be made with the help of small hands, popped into children’s lunch boxes, and even played with. Jell-O as edible toy! Carrying this idea to new heights, the greatest Jell-O-forming experiments of all time were to take place in Brooklyn, New York, two decades later.

It was in 2009 that the first annual Jell-O Mold Competition was held at the Gowanus Studio Space. As gallery codirector Michelle Zatta explains it, “The idea for a Jell-O mold project had been kicking around for a while, after another member found an old Jell-O recipe book. I thought this would be an interesting platform for a larger design event, focusing less on the retro aspects of Jell-O and more on exploring Jell-O’s design properties in the present tense.” Students as well as amateur and professional artists, singly or in teams of up to four, were encouraged to submit sculptures made of Jell-O or other gelatin. The rules were simple: Sculptures must be molded, molds must be created by the entrants and may be made of anything, and all sculptures must be edible. The team of five judges would be testing the castings for palatability as well as evaluating them based on aesthetic considerations.

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