Utah's unshaking loyalty to Jell-O

Dessert: The Beehive State is host not only to the Olympics but also to a traveling museum dedicated to the state's favorite gelatin.

February 06, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

What's shaking in the home of the Winter Olympics?

Jell-O.

You know, that sugary, wiggly, Bill Cosby-giggly, eat-it-for-a-troubled-tummy dessert.

It seems the folks of Utah eat more Jell-O per capita than anyone in the country. More than the residents of Iowa, the previous holder of the title.

We know this because Cosby, the ambassador of Jell-O nation, went to the Utah Legislature last year and swore it to be true.

The lawmakers were so taken with the honor that they set aside the second week of February each year to pay tribute. For Utahans, it was a case of just desserts.

Cosby came back to Utah this week to introduce a traveling Jell-O Museum that will set up shop right in downtown Salt Lake City for the duration of the Winter Games, which start Friday.

Why is the Beehive State so gaga over Jell-O?

Finding that answer is like trying to nail the proverbial flavored gelatin to the wall. But food historians have offered these correlations:

Jell-O has a wholesome image. Utah, the home of the Osmonds, is wholesome.

Jell-O can be made in large batches. Utah families, by and large, come in large batches.

Jell-O is the perfect church supper meal-ender. Utah, the headquarters of the Mormon religion, provides the churches.

As a matter of fact, one of the more popular pins at the Olympics is one of a large family holding a bowl of green gelatin with the caption beneath saying "Mormon Soul Food."

Jell-O has been around for slightly more than 100 years. Contrary to one theory, it was not invented by the guy who lost out on the tapioca patent.

In fact, Jell-O was invented in 1897 by a carpenter in Le Roy, a small town in upstate New York, who was trying to concoct a cough syrup and laxative tea and came up with a fruit-flavored dessert instead. Failing to find a market for his product, he sold the recipe in 1899 to a neighbor for $450.

That neighbor, Orator Woodward, was known for his own foodlike substance, "Grain-O," a coffee-type beverage made with roasted cereal, "for those who can't drink tea or coffee."

Woodward turned around and sold his Os to Sam Nico for $35, prompting locals to adopt the municipal mantra, "Grain-O, Jell-O, Nico."

The Jell-O factory moved from Le Roy to Dover, Del., in the 1960s, but the little town situated between Buffalo and Rochester still displays its gelatin background in a museum on Main Street.

Some of those displays are part of the traveling museum at the Olympics, although Jell-O is quick to note that it is not an "official" sponsor of the games.

The curator of the Jell-O collection is Lynne Belluscio, a food historian with a hearty laugh who often sips a cup of hot Jell-O during her afternoon break and rattles off the four original flavors without taking a breath ("strawberry, raspberry, lemon and orange").

The museum opened in 1997 as part of the Jell-O centennial, and the staff soon found that its summer hours weren't enough. A grant from the Kraft-General Foods Corp., Jell-O's parent corporation, paid for a furnace and bathrooms for the 19th-century schoolhouse, and now visitors come year-round.

Belluscio admits her job is pretty strange. "People kind of look at you sideways," she says, laughing. "It seems I'm always trying to prove myself to the museum community."

As a food historian, Belluscio is fascinated by Jell-O because the desire for and marketing of the product so closely matches what was happening in America at that time.

Molded gelatin was popular in Victorian times. In the Depression-era, families put small quantities of meat and fish in gelatin to make their food budget stretch farther. The same held true during World War II, although sugar rationing sometimes made Jell-O scarce, too.

By the 1950s, Jell-O went molded again, and fruit and vegetable salads became big. Another invention boosted Jell-O's popularity.

"Mini marshmallows," says Belluscio. "Large marshmallows in Jell-O, nobody would eat it. The big ones don't do it. Once mini marshmallows were introduced, that made it acceptable."

Belluscio says there's probably some truth to the theories on Jell-O's popularity in Utah and beyond, and adds one of her own: "It's something kids like, and it's something parents like to make for their kids."

Then, she offers a more scientific explanation that hits closer to home.

It seems Adrian Upton, a Canadian doctor, hooked a mold of lime Jell-O to an electroencephalograph, a machine that records the electrical activity of the brain. For whatever reason, Upton found that the Jell-O showed the same activity as the human brain.

A hospital in upstate New York ran a second test and, sure enough, says Belluscio, "You can't tell a human brain from a bowl of Jell-O."

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