Jell-O: A Biography

Jell-O: A Biography

by Carolyn Wyman


What could be more American than zero-down, zero-percent interest, or commemorative firefighter coins from Liberia (limit five per household)? Why, Jell-O of course, the tasty desert originating from the unlikely basic ingredient of animal cartilage.

Having already conquered similar territory in Spam: A Biography, Carolyn Wyman takes us through the rich (and sometimes lurid) lore of this uniquely American treat. There are plenty of recipes, ranging from the historical (“Shredded Wheat Jell-O Apple Sandwich,” from 1902) to the hysterical (ibid). But far more interesting is the stunning breadth and detail uncovered, given Jell-O’s fairly straightforward aspect as a clear, tinted, homogeneous quivering mass.

For example: Jell-O played a part in the conviction of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, accused of passing along nuclear secrets to the Soviets in the mid ’40s. An oddly-cut Jell-O box was supposed to be used to match messenger with courier. Like many parts of the case, the veracity of this story is debatable; however, it was documented and part of the evidence entered against the Rosenbergs. Or: In 1969, Dr. Adrian Upton connected an electroencephalograph (EEG) to a dome of lime Jell-O, only to find the readings to be almost identical to those of healthy human beings. The experiment proved not that people have curdled animal hooves for brains (a trip to Wal-Mart at 4 AM will prove that), but that EEGs are quite susceptible to environmental interference.

And so much more. The amount of information Wyman has collected is almost as staggering as the amount of gelatin consumed each year (about 160,000 tons). Pick a page at random, and you’re bound to hit something that makes you think “Huh. I didn’t know that.” Jell-O: A Biography is lots of fun, and not just for fans of the desert.

Harcourt Books:

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