How Jell-O Got Its Bounce

The dessert was once as high status as it is squishy.

A spoonful of rainbow Jell-O
DircinhaSW / Getty / Angela He / The Atlantic

It’s been described as the ultimate status symbol for the wealthy, as the perfect solution for dieters and the sick, and, confusingly, as a liquid trapped in a solid that somehow remains fluid. What could this magical substance be? In case you haven’t guessed, this episode we’re talking about Jell-O! Or, to be more precise, jelly—not the seedless kind you spread on toast, but the kind that shimmers on your plate, wiggles and jiggles on your spoon, and melts in your mouth. Jelly’s story is as old as cooking itself—it is one that involves spectacular riches and dazzling displays, as well as California’s poet laureate and some very curious chemistry.

Ivan Day is a social historian with a serious jelly-mold habit. “I’ve got hundreds—I don’t know. I may have thousands,” he told Gastropod. As part of his research, Day has painstakingly re-created many of the most glorious desserts from what he calls the “Golden Age of Jelly,” in 1700s and 1800s Britain. Before then, jelly had largely been a savory affair, a textural side effect resulting from melting the collagen in animal bones and cartilage during cooking and then cooling the dish, which allowed the melted collagen to gel. But with the increasing availability of sugar and the technology to produce affordable stoneware and metal molds, an elaborate molded jelly became the essential culmination of any upper-class banquet—a pre-Instagram Instagrammable food par excellence.

That all changed in the 20th century, as jelly reinvented itself as Jell-O. Following the invention of powdered gelatin by a man better known for laying the first telegraph cables under the Atlantic and building the first practical steam locomotive made in America, Jell-O became the country’s most popular dessert. “Jell-O felt like this food of the future, that could really coincide with our collective fixation with science and progress,” explained Allie Rowbottom, a Jell-O heiress and the author of a new memoir, Jell-O Girls. She said that by the 1950s, “you’d be hard-pressed to go to a potluck anywhere in America and not find a Jell-O mold of some sort.”

But the second half of the 20th century was not kind to Jell-O, despite Bill Cosby’s best efforts as the company’s former spokesperson. Today, most jelly is eaten by the under-10 set, hospital inpatients, or Weight Watchers members looking for a zero-point dessert. Unless, of course, you’re in Thailand, where the Gastropod listener and agar-factory owner Rawewon Sutichavengkul told us that elaborate agar-jelly molds are popular among adults and children alike. Or South London, where the British food magicians Sam Bompas and Harry Parr have been leading a jelly revival, featuring glow-in-the-dark jellies, holographic jellies, and jellies so big you could float a steamship on them. Listen to this episode for all these stories and more, including the forgotten first lady of microbiology, the unusual uses of gelling agents in today’s processed food, and the surprising connection between Jell-O and Ellis Island.

This post appears courtesy of  Gastropod.