May 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jell-O

On this day in 1897, Jell-O was introduced to the world. It is powdered gelatin with flavoring added. The first flavors offered were strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon.

A man named Pearle Wait had bought the patent for plain, unflavored powdered gelatin, which had already been sold for about 50 years. He manufactured cough syrup, which was commonly flavored to help people take the stuff, and Wait's idea of flavoring the gelatin seemed to be a good one. His wife Mary suggested the name Jell-O. But the Waits weren't successful at marketing their good idea, so they ended up selling their patent in 1899.

Jell-O soon began to succeed, due to advertising in Ladies' Home Journal and to a give-away of free Jell-O cookbooks. Celebrity testimonials and a popular jingle (a short but memorable song used as a sales slogan or ad) boosted the brand even more.

New flavors of Jell-O gelatin were introduced, including cherry, peach, and lime. Some flavors that were sold but are no longer sold include chocolate, celery, Italian, mixed vegetable, and seasoned tomato. (Gee, I can't imagine why those flavors have been discontinued!) The savory flavors were used in the 1940s and 50s in “congealed salads” and “aspics.” (Um....Yum?)

Pictured left is a chicken-and-egg aspic.

In the U.S., the brand name Jell-O is sometimes used as a generic name for all gelatin (as Kleenex is commonly used for all brands of facial tissue). Even the store display pictured here, right, uses the label Jell-O instead of gelatin.

Three hundred million boxes of Jell-O gelatin are sold in the U.S. each year, and the Jell-O brand now includes around 160 products (although that number includes pudding
mixes, frozen treats, and candy). Some of the newest flavors to be introduced include watermelon, blueberry, cranberry, margarita, and pina colada.

The Chemistry of J-E-L-L-O

  • Dry gelatin is made of colloidal proteins which form chains. Hot water is needed to denature (that is, change the structure of) the proteins so that they can reform as a semisolid colloidal suspension.
That sounds super complicated, but let's break it down:

→ a semi-solid is anything that is midway between liquid and solid. The two examples given by several different dictionaries are a stiff cookie dough and a firm gelatin.

→ a colloid is something in which one substance is evenly mixed into another. For example, milk is a colloid in which tiny globs of liquid butterfat are mixed into a water-based liquid. There are a lot of other natural colloids, such as fog (drops of water dispersed evenly in air), smoke (solid particles dispersed evenly in air), blood (solid blood cells in liquid plasma), pumice (air pocketed throughout solid rock). People have invented a lot of colloids, besides for Jell-O; here are some examples: hair sprays, mayonnaise, shaving cream, ink, jelly, and styrofoam.
  • Many people include ingredients such as chopped fruit, nuts, and whipped cream into their Jell-O salads and desserts. But some foods cannot be used with Jell-O, because they contain enzymes that prevent the gelatin from getting firm, or setting. Examples include fresh pineapple, papaya, kiwi, and ginger root.
→ Enzymes are proteins that increase the rate of certain reactions.

Enjoy Jell-O!

Use blue Jell-O and gummy fish to make an edible aquarium.

Make “Finger Jell-O” or "Jigglers."

Try making Jell-O with 7-up or sparkling cider instead of water. Apparently you can feel little bubbles popping in your mouth as you eat it!

I haven't tried this recipe, but doesn't “Broken Glass Jell-O” sound yummy?

There are about a million recipes on the Jell-O website. Here is one for "Eyeball Potion."

Rainbow Jell-O created and
photographed by Mark Fickett.
Note that whipped cream or cream cheese has been
added to Jell-O layers between the translucent layers.
That's so that the colors don't mix together in our eyes
and get "muddy."

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