Jell-O! The Jiggly, Wiggly American Icon.

Growing up, I was exposed to Jell-O in just about any way and every way one can imagine–molded, sliced, cubed up, chopped up, plain or mixed with fruit, cottage cheese, and all sorts of vegetables. It seems that every grandmother, mother, and daughter had their favorite Jell-O dish and an extreme compulsion to bring it to each family gathering, church supper, funeral repast, or self-catered wedding reception they attended.

While certainly not the shiniest spoon of the culinary world, my granny used to make a green Jell-O salad that I absolutely loved. It was made with lime Jell-O that was chilled until almost set and into which cottage cheese, Cool Whip, crushed pineapple, and chopped pecans were mixed. Granny said she got the recipe from a lady that worked at the local Piccadilly Cafeteria, where it was served every day. I once asked her if the salad had a name, and without the slightest hesitation she replied, “Green Jell-O salad.” I suppose keeping it simple is the best policy.

This fruit-flavored gelatin-based product most of us know as Jell-O has been an integral part of American culture for over a century. But to understand its development, one must start in the 15th century when producing the elaborate molded gelatin centerpieces so popular in medieval Europe was reserved for only the wealthy. The reason for its exclusivity was due to the arduous, time-consuming ordeal it took to render the collagen from which gelatin, a tasteless, colorless, odorless protein, is made. To best describe the lengthy process we can go to this excerpt from The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London, 1747) by Hannah Glasse.

Take out the great Bones of four Calves Feet, and put the Feet into a Pot with ten Quarts of Water, three Ounces of Hartshorn, three Ounces of Isinglass, a Nutmeg quarter’d, four Blades of Mace; then boil this till it comes to two Quarts, and strain it through a Flannel-Bag, let it stand twenty-four Hours, then scrape all the Fat from the Top very clean, then slice it, and put to it the Whites of six Eggs beaten to Froth, boil it a little, and strain it again through a Flannel-Bag, then run the Jelly into little high Glasses…You must colour Red with Cochincal, Green with Spinage, Yellow with Saffron, Blue with Syrup of Violets, White with thick Cream, and sometimes the felly by itself. You may add Orange-flower Water, or Wine and Sugar, and Lemon if you please, but this is all Fancy.

As in Europe, gelatin delicacies were also used by elite American colonists to make social statements and impress dinner guests with the size of their kitchen staffs. Thomas Jefferson, whose culinary tastes were influenced by his time in France, often served guests wine gelatin at his Monticello estate.


  • The original Jell-O flavors developed by Pearle and May Wait were strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon. Strawberry remains today’s best seller. Lime was introduced in 1930.
  • In the early 1900s immigrants passing through Ellis Island were often served a bowl of Jell-O as a “Welcome to America” treat.
  • In the 1923 Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Ten Commandments, Jell-O was used to create the effect of parting the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape Egypt.
  • On January 6, 1925 Jell-O was issued a patent for a sugarless gelatin dessert named D-Zerta.
  • In 1927 Chocolate Jell-O was introduced. It was discontinued the same year.
  • In 1934 General Foods, a pioneer in radio marketing, signed Jack Benny to sing the “J-E-L-L-O” song, making it a world-wide household name.
  • In the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the horse that changed colors was actually six horses sponged down with Jell-O.
  • Jell-O continued to be made in Le Roy, New York until 1964 when it was moved to Dover, Delaware.
  • In 1997 the Jell-O Museum opened in Le Roy, New York. The museum showcases more than 100 years of brand history including Jell-O artwork by Max Parrish, Norman Rockwell, and other famous artists.
  • In 1974 Dr. Adrian Upton attached an EEG machine to a dome of lime Jell-O in an effort to prove the machine should not be the only method used to determine if a person is alive or not. The EEG machine showed Jell-O produces alpha waves much the same as a human. And we all know Jell-O is not alive.
  • Also in 1974, with Jell-O sales on the decline, an advertising campaign was launched to introduce Jigglers, Jell-O snacks molded into fun shapes that could be eaten as finger food. The campaign helped sales rise back.
  • In 2001 Utah State Representative Lenard Blackham introduced legislation declaring “Jell-O brand gelatin be recognized as the favorite snack of Utah.” With only two dissenting votes, Jell-O became the official Utah state snack food.
  • In the 1960s Jell-O introduced several savory flavors such as celery, cabbage, green pepper, and cooked pasta. They were all discontinued.
  • In 1996, astronaut Shannon Lucid took Jell-O on her 140-day mission aboard the Russian space station. She served the Russian crewmates their very first Jell-O on Easter Sunday.

It was during the 19th century Industrial Revolution that America also began to witness a number of major changes in its food production, including an easier solution for gelatin-based applications than boiling and straining animal hoofs. In the early 1800s, Peter Cooper, inventor of America’s first steam locomotive, was searching for a new glue when he developed the process for making dried gelatin sheets. Then by 1845, he patented (U.S. Patent 4084) a powdered version he called “Portable Gelatin.” But because Cooper was interested in glue, not gelatin, he did little or nothing to commercialize his find.

In the small town of Le Roy, New York, Pearle Bixby Wait and his wife May operated a struggling cough syrup and laxative business. In search for something that would provide them a more successful business opportunity, they purchased Cooper’s gelatin patent and began flavoring the tasteless powder with sugary fruit syrups they used in making their cough medicine. In 1895 the Waits trademarked their great tasting new dessert as “Jell-O,” combining both the words gelatin and jelly (from the Latin “gelare,” meaning to congeal or freeze). Adding the “O” at the end was just a popular practice at the time–a means of taking a common word and making it easy to trademark.

By 1899, Pearle and May had exhausted the capital needed to successfully market their new product, so on September 8 they sold the formula, patent, and name to a local business, Genesee Pure Food Company, for $450 (about $13,000 in today’s money), owned by Orator Francis Woodward.

In spite of the Genesee Company’s knowledge and experience in successful food marketing, Jell-O’s sagging sales frustrated Woodward. So much so, that he reportedly offered to sell the Jell-O business to his plant superintendent, Andrew S. Nico, for $35. Nico turned down the offer. Finally in 1902, Woodward’s efforts started paying off when he sent an army of well-dressed salesmen to communities, fairs, and church socials to pass out samples. Jell-O sales that year were over $250,000.

In 1904, Genesee’s advertising director William E. Humelbaugh convinced Woodward to take some of the profits from Grain-O, one of the company’s steady income producers, and spend it to market Jell-O. Three-inch ads were placed in Ladies Home Journal at $365 each, proclaiming Jell-O to be “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” Free Jell-O recipe booklets were printed sporting cover illustrations by such noted artists as Rose O’Neill, Maxfield Parrish, and Norman Rockwell. Later that year, Genesee introduced the Jell-O Girl, four-year old Elizabeth King, whose likeness appeared in ads holding a teakettle and a package of Jell-O with the tag line, “You can’t be a kid without it.” The efforts quickly paid off as sales and national brand recognition began to soar.

In 1923, Genesee Pure Foods Company officially became the Jell-O Company and in 1925 merged with Postum Cereal, Inc. This union eventually became General Foods Corporation. Today Jell-O is owned by Kraft/General Foods.

So there you have it, the story of Jell-O’s development and how it grew from an obscure product with sales of just $250,000 in 1902, to today’s cultural icon with a 99% brand recognition and unit sales of over 750,000 boxes each and every day.

I’m going to the kitchen now and throw together granny’s Green Jell-O Salad for my wife to take to the Ladies Club potluck luncheon tomorrow. And just for fun, I’ll make some tequila-strawberry Jell-O shots for myself and the guys. Why not buy a box or two of your favorite Jell-O flavors and make some jiggly fun for yourself and your family tonight.

Make Em:Granny’s Green Jell-O Salad


Sloppy Joe. American’s Quintessential Loose Meat Sandwich

I guess I was a young teenager when I first heard of a sloppy joe. I remember the sandwich being served for lunch in my junior high (known today as middle school) cafeteria. But since I brown-bagged my lunch in those days, it was a year or two later before I actually ate one.

One day while hanging out at my childhood best friend Billy’s house, his mother invited me to share lunch. Eating at Billy’s house was always special, not because his mom was a better cook than mine but because she prepared dishes my mom didn’t. I eagerly accepted. Right there at an old picnic table in Billy’s back yard I had my first sloppy joe.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a zealous hamburger fan that I cannot really appreciate the concept. For whatever reason, I was totally unimpressed then by the sloppy joe and remain of the same mind today.

The sloppy joe began making its appearance in food columns, advertisements, and cookbooks in the early 1940s. In the October 29, 1944 issue of the Coshocton (Ohio) Tribune, The Hamburg Shop advertised among its offerings a new sandwich–the Sloppy Joe for ten-cents. By the 1950s this sandwich, consisting of ground beef, onions, Worcestershire, ketchup or tomato sauce and various seasons served on a bun, had become a lunch counter and school cafeteria staple.

The popularity of this economical sandwich continued to grow so much that in 1969 Hunt’s, a ConAgra company, introduced Manwich Sauce to the American consumer. A pound of cooked ground beef and a can of Manwich enabled every housewife to make delicious sloppy joe’s for their family. Hunt’s marketed Manwich with the slogan, “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal.”

Over time, the exact genesis of this American sandwich has been lost. Some say it was the creation of José Abeal y Otero, owner of a Havana bar. Others credit the Silver Slipper (renamed Sloppy Joe’s) owner Joe Russell in Key West. Still another theory is that in the 1930s an Iowa cook named Joe at one of Fred Angell’s Maid-Rite restaurants came up with the concept.

Conjecture on how the sloppy joe got its name is as varied as that of who invented the sandwich itself. Was it named after the Maid-Rite cook who is said to have created it, or after the Havana and Key West bars of the same name? Another story attributes the name to one of Angell’s customers whose name was Joe, after eating one of the messy sandwiches.

One thing in which almost every food historian agrees is that the precursor of the sloppy joe was the “loose meat sandwich,” also known as a steamer or tavern sandwich. The loose meat sandwich, originating in the 1920s at Ye Olde Tavern in Sioux City, Ohio, was nothing more than crumbled ground beef with seasonings served on a bun with mustard and pickles.

Some of you may remember the loose meat sandwich served at the fictional Lanford Lunchbox on the 1992 Roseanne television sit-com. It is said the inspiration for the Lunchbox was a real-life restaurant called Canteen Lunch in the Alley in Ottumwa, Ohio. Roseanne’s then-husband and co-star Tom Arnold is from Ottumwa.

Sloppy joe’s are often referred to by various names depending on what region of the U.S. you’re in. Some of those names include: barbecues, dynamites, slushburgers, steamers, and yum-yums. And while usually made with ground beef, some variations include ground chicken, turkey, pork, and even a combination of meats. Vegetarians also enjoy sloppy joe’s by substituting vegetable protein for the meat.

In northern New Jersey, a completely different sandwich emerges. In 1936, the Town Deli in Orange, New Jersey added to its menu the Original Sloppy Joe, a double-decker deli sandwich consisting of cow tongue, ham, and Swiss cheese on thin rye bread, topped with cold slaw and lots of Russian dressing. This infamous State favorite is still available at the Town Deli, along with ten Joe Sandwich variations.

Today the Sloppy Joe remains a popular sandwich, especially in schools, retirement communities, and diners all across this great nation. Several other countries have similar culinary creations. For example in China, roujiamo is a popular street food consisting of stewed pork combined with over 20 herbs and spices served in mo, a type of flatbread, or on a steamed bun. In India, a pav bread roll filled with keema, a mixture stewed and curried lamb or mutton with potatoes and peas.

If you’ve never eaten a sloppy joe I encourage you to try one. I’ve included a recipe for the classic version, or you can pick up a can of Manwich at your local supermarket and follow the instructions on the can. Either will provide a fast, economical meal, and you may very well become a loyal sloppy joe fan. As for me, my undying loyalty will remain with the all-American hamburger.

Make Em: Classic Sloppy Joes