Like any parent, I remember my daughter’s firsts. The first time she said “mama,” the first time she took a few loopy steps, the first time she determinedly wrote the letters of her name without help, the first time she tasted real food (sweet potatoes), and, relatedly, the first time she tasted Jell-O (cherry red). Something that, as anyone who has eaten the stuff knows, is more than just an experience for the taste buds: Its high-gloss sheen, its wobbly stature, its otherworldly texture make it a food that simultaneously tickles many senses. And tickle it did; my daughter’s eyes widened in awe, she laughed loudly, her delight was immediate.
During the pandemic, the rest of us were, like my daughter, seemingly more receptive to jelly than ever. Caroline Tremlett, who lives in Chiswick, West London, had been quietly collecting antique jelly moulds since 2005; when lockdown hit in 2020, she took her passion online. “I decided to use my collection and post a jelly a day for a year and created @adventuresinjelly,” says Tremlett of her popular Instagram account, Adventures in Jelly, which has more than 30,000 followers who tune in for the wobbly slo-mos of her moulded creations.
Gelatin (which also goes by jelly, Jell-O is the name of the popular American brand) has been inspiring a similar sense of awe and delight for centuries, and can be found in recipes dating back to medieval Europe. Up through the 19th century, gelatin towers on the table were an indicator not just of taste but class: Only the most well-to-do families (with plenty of staff) could afford to undertake the laborious process of making it, which required hours of boiling animal bones to render collagen followed by clarifying.
Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in California, in his book The Great Gelatin Revival, points to gelatin recipes in the Latin Liber de coquina, written around 1300 in Naples, and Le Viandier, a collection of recipes attributed to the famous French royal chef Guillaume Tirel (1326-1395), though he thinks there could have even been prehistoric gelatin precedents.
Years later French chef Marie-Antoine Carême famously served aspics (a savoury meat jelly) with truffles and cockscomb suspended in mountainous gelatinous creations to Napoleon’s imperial court, and in the 18th century fanciful moulds were themselves a work of art. ”Jelly was a status symbol,” adds Tremlett.
Commercial powdered gelatin, which would usher in new mass appeal, came to be in the late 19th century: Peter Cooper had the first patent in 1845, but it’s Pearle and May Wait who sold the idea to the Genesee Pure Food Company in 1899. In the decades that followed, Jell-O became a household name. During the Great Depression it was an ideal (and economical) vehicle for reinventing leftovers. In the 1950s and 60s elaborate Jell-O creations (such as, say, an “Under-the-Sea Salad” where pears and cream cheese support tiers of lime gelatin) were the centrepiece of many a dinner party, and for my fellow children of the eighties it was a regular dessert course.
But, as Albala chronicles in his book, our collective taste for jellies has always ebbed and flowed. “It goes dramatically up and down in popularity,” he adds. “There was a heyday in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, then another in the Victorian era, and of course mid-century USA. I think we’re about ready for another round.”
Pastry chef Jena Derman and master mixologist Jack Schramm founded Solid Wiggles, maker of jelly shots, in the fall of 2020 in Brooklyn. What began as a what-if idea is now their full-time job and you can find Solid Wiggles jellies on the menu at acclaimed New York restaurants such as Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi and Ci Siamo. Derman describes their creatively spiked concoctions as one part bartending, one part pastry, one part art.
Pastry chef Kenta Takahashi of Vancouver’s Boulevard Kitchen frequently relies on gelatin in his recipes for both volume (it creates an ideal featherweight texture) and visual impact: “Jelly items have the nicest shine,” he adds. And variations have been on the menu at Portage in St. John’s for the past few months, says pastry chef Celeste Mah, ranging from pineapple jelly with roasted corn crème anglaise to grape jelly with toasted bread and sunflower seed and praline ice cream.
That gelatin, which defies tidy categorization or description, is an ideal medium for artistic experimentation makes perfect sense. “Combined with the reflective sheen over the surface, this superfigurative, over-the-top food blends allure, wonder and fantasy,” says Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas & Parr, a creative studio that has wielded the maximal food in wildly inventive ways. Such as when they made a 50-tonne jelly of the SS Great Britain, a 19th-century steamship. A story about the art installation became the most viewed news story on the BBC.
Gelee, the brainchild of chef Zoe Messinger, prioritizes nuanced flavour profiles and artful presentation in equal measure. For an event at the Gritti Palace during Venice Glass Week, Messinger set afloat in jelly casings a spritz with Aperol marbles; oysters and grapefruit with foraged flowers; and prosciutto and melon. “The idea was to mirror glass and highlight alchemical pursuits,” explains Messinger. “I’ve always been drawn to gelatin as a medium to play with and a canvas for expression.”
One reason the public continues to be drawn to gelatin is the nostalgic note it hits: Many of our collective memories are tinged with some form of it. “Everyone has a jelly story from their childhood,” adds Bompas. Tremlett recalls childhood birthday parties with moulded rabbit jelly cake surrounded by green jelly grass and Messinger, who grew up in a home in New York where Jell-O was not stocked, says she got her fix as a teenager from the Taiwanese jellies in lychee, pear and grape procured at the local bodega.
For me, one of my most vivid food memories is scooping lime Jell-O, the ultimate salve, out of a Styrofoam bowl in a hospital bed after getting my tonsils and adenoids removed at age 6. The bizarrely appealing mouthfeel certainly fuels our gelatin interest and so does its distinctive jiggle. “At a time when social media is increasingly dominated by video content, gelatin is one of the few things that can naturally move on the plate,” says Bompas, adding that it was both its glistening sheen and ability to quiver gently with each table-nudge that made it the ultimate display of wealth and taste centuries ago.
There’s also something almost sensual about it, its movement eerily mimicking that of our own bodies. “Jelly’s fleshy qualities means that it can be a tad erotic, which is always an effective way of capturing interest,” adds Bompas.
But why gelatin, in 2023, keeps showing up on our social feeds and on restaurant menus, may be for an even simpler reason than all that: It sparks joy. “Delight and play are vital nutrients,” says Messinger. Adds Tremlett: “A jelly just brings a smile.” Which is what happened when I found myself seated recently at the bar of Café Mars, a new Italian restaurant in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighbourhood where the quirk extends from the Memphis-style design to the menu.
I had a plate of their jell-olives in front of me, and the gleaming red Negroni-flavoured cubes, each one with a Castelvetrano suspended inside, inspired a toddler-like welp of excitement in me. I couldn’t quite figure out how they’d done it and that was part of their wondrous appeal. Says Derman: “Jelly is in so many ways like magic, or as close as you can get to it.”