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Gelatin, from calf's hoof jelly to Jell-O, "America's Favorite Dessert"
February 2, 2014 5:07 PM   Subscribe

Gelatin foodstuffs have a long culinary history. The ancient Egyptians made a gelatin-like substance from protein-rich animal materials that they used in their cuisine. It wasn't until the 17th century invention of pressure cooking devices that the process of creating gelatin became significantly less labor and time intensive. The process was refined in the following decades, with the US inventor Peter Cooper filing the patent for Improvement in the preparation of portable gelatine in 1845. He never made much of the patent, and sold it to Pearle B. Wait, who's wife, May Davis Wait, helped turn the gelatin into Jell-O, both naming the product and turning it into a sweet, fruit-flavored dessert. They, too, had no luck selling Jell-O, and sold the patent for $450 to Orator Francis Woodward, who struggled for a period, before turning to marketing to increase interest in the dessert (NYT). By 1902, Jell-O was "America's Favorite Dessert," at least according to the advertisements. And now you know the history of gelatin and Jello.

An early recipe for home-made gelatin was calf's feet jelly, a time-intensive dessert in. Denis Papin's Digester machine was the first device that sped up the making of gelatine or gelatin. The process was refined in the following decades, and in 1842, the J and G (Cox) Company of Edinburgh, Scotland produced gelatin and glue, and exported the former to the United States, where the inventor of the "Tom Thumb" steam locomotive, Peter Cooper, filed the patent for an improved process, a side product of his efforts in the glue business (Google books preview). A few decades later, Cooper sold the patent to the carpenter Pearle B. Wait, who also made cough medicines and laxative teas. Pearle and his wife also had no luck selling the newly named Jell-o, and in 1899, they sold the formula and brand name to a fellow townsman in Le Roy, New York. Woodward had a spot of trouble selling the product, and even offered Sam Nico the whole blankety-blank business for $35. But that was apparently a dark moment in the first year of Woodward's ownership, as Jell-O appeared from his Genesee Pure Food Company in 1900, and in 1902, sales of Jell-O amounted to $250,000. From there, the product really took off, thanks to marketing.
posted by filthy light thief (31 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't forget gummi! It is the telos of gelatin.
You can make your own, if you like.
posted by Casimir at 5:23 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Using Jell-O and unflavored gelatin, I should mention. So the term 'make' is a bit fanciful.

Yo dawg.
posted by Casimir at 5:27 PM on February 2


If you are ever in Le Roy NY, a visit to the Jell-o Gallery is not to be missed - just for the exquisite collection of original Jell-o art alone.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:32 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


And for the first several years, Jack Benny's radio comedy show was officially titled "The Jell-O Show with Jack Benny". Something about sponsoring a comedian with a reputation as a tightwad probably helped the image of Jell-O as an inexpensive dessert...
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:36 PM on February 2 [2 favorites]


At the church-basement potluck gathering after my grandmother's funeral I counted, if I am not misremembering, at least 7 kinds of Jell-O based dish.
posted by brennen at 5:40 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


How To Make Jello Worms
The Ultimate Jello Shot - how much alcohol can we get into one shot of Jello?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:45 PM on February 2 [4 favorites]


For many Americans who grew up in the midwest and converted to vegetarianism, the sudden discovery that Jell-O is no longer a permissible comfort food is the first crisis of faith.
posted by ardgedee at 5:45 PM on February 2 [15 favorites]


Boston-area MeFites might know that the General Foods plant visible from Rt. 93 in Woburn is one of the places where Jell-O is made.
posted by briank at 5:48 PM on February 2 [2 favorites]


There's always room for agar-agar.
posted by FJT at 5:52 PM on February 2 [6 favorites]


Lark's Tongues in Aspic.
posted by ovvl at 5:59 PM on February 2 [3 favorites]


I made a stripped Jello for the game tonight! Blue and orange, blue and orange. Delicious. Not as delicious as victory though :(
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:07 PM on February 2 [2 favorites]


BtAF weighs in.
posted by poe at 6:07 PM on February 2 [3 favorites]


It's made from hooves, you know.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:08 PM on February 2


poe, I've always loved that Bob-the Angry-Flower strip.
posted by JHarris at 6:51 PM on February 2


CUBE!
posted by kafziel at 7:20 PM on February 2


The Ultimate Jello Shot - how much alcohol can we get into one shot of Jello?

As relates to this, I recall being told - possibly here on MeFi - that the use of agar rather than normal gelatin means you can get ridiculously high alcohol content in a stable shot. Are there truths to this?
posted by kafziel at 7:21 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


I boiled and baked some sweet potatoes with brown sugar, and set them in an unflavored gelatin mixture for kicks one time for a sweet potato-themed party, and they came out with the most awesome texture. I was so surprised!
posted by oceanjesse at 7:40 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


ardgedee: For many Americans who grew up in the midwest and converted to vegetarianism, the sudden discovery that Jell-O is no longer a permissible comfort food is the first crisis of faith.

And I'm not sure if it's better or worse to tell a Hindu that the Jello that they so love is most likely made from cow hooves and such. Luckily, there are vegan gelatin alternatives, including algae-based agar-agar (or just agar), carrageenan, derived from red seaweed, plus commercial vegan alternatives.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:55 PM on February 2


A lot of the work done on the chemistry and structure of gelatin was done at Kodak, I think, because gelatin is used to make photographic film. The process of making a single batch could take years (series of acid and alkali baths taking up the most time), using only connective tissue from ears of calves that grazed only on particular plants.

I read this in a book by a man with the last name Haist. Don't remember title!
posted by Halogenhat at 7:58 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


Lark's Tongues in Aspic

Holy shit I want to be Jamie Muir when I grow up. Bright orange trousers! Bike horn! Duck call! Deranged-yet-gleeful facial expression!

posted by this is a thing at 7:59 PM on February 2


Halogenhat: A lot of the work done on the chemistry and structure of gelatin was done at Kodak, I think, because gelatin is used to make photographic film.

Related: Kodak agrees to sell gelatin business (WSJ, 2011)
Eastman Kodak Co. said Thursday it has agreed to sell its gelatin business as the struggling photography pioneer looks to boost its dwindling cash reserves.

Kodak is selling the Eastman Gelatine business to Rousselot, a division of the Vion Food Group. Terms were not disclosed. Eastman Gelatine produces gelatin used in photographic and printing processes as well as in food, pharmaceuticals.

Kodak expects the sale to close within the next 30 days. About 95 Eastman Gelatine employees will transfer to Rousselot, and Rousselot will also gain a 575,000-square-foot production facility in Peabody, Mass.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:02 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


I read this in a book by a man with the last name Haist. Don't remember title!
was it Modern Photographic Processing?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:10 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


He never made much of the patent

The inventor Peter Cooper didn't aparently need the money (he was the philanthropist founder of Cooper Union) he had other more interesting pursuits.
posted by three blind mice at 4:51 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


was it Modern Photographic Processing?

That must be it, yes. Too tired to Google last night. A lot of chemistry in that book.

Kodak recently sold a lot of things.
posted by Halogenhat at 6:11 AM on February 3


Knox unflavored gelatin makes an excellent substitute for hide glue.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:03 AM on February 3


brennen: At the church-basement potluck gathering after my grandmother's funeral I counted, if I am not misremembering, at least 7 kinds of Jell-O based dish.

You might find some familiar recipes in the vintage recipes collection: Jell-O in its many forms (it's a post tag from a vintage recipes blog, Hey, My Mom Used to Make That!).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:53 AM on February 3 [2 favorites]


Growing up, I read a lot of 19th century books, and I figured calves'-foot jelly was flavored to taste like calves' feet. I shrugged and figured it was one of those old-timey things.
posted by cereselle at 9:32 AM on February 3 [1 favorite]


Similar to head cheese, which isn't a cheese, but is definitely made from parts of an animal's head.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:11 AM on February 3


I had a book from the 1920s on children's parties. It was a pretty amazing book (on Lincoln's birthday you could have spoon races carrying licorice babies representing freed slaves), but what I remember most was the almost endless number of recipes using jello. On the 4th of July you pretty much had to have red, white and blue jello.
posted by acrasis at 10:26 AM on February 3


Since I'm snowed in and have nothing better to do than think about gelatin, one of my father's favorite dishes was Kholodets. That linked recipe looks OK, but I use pieces of pork instead of chicken. The trick is to over-season the "soup" slightly, because you'll be eating it cold.
posted by acrasis at 11:04 AM on February 3


There's always room for agar-agar.

Although as I literally just mentioned over on Ask, agar--unlike gelatine--melts at a temperature higher than normal human body temp, which is why it doesn't have the same melty mouthfeel.

But:

As relates to this, I recall being told - possibly here on MeFi - that the use of agar rather than normal gelatin means you can get ridiculously high alcohol content in a stable shot. Are there truths to this?

There are all kinds of truths to this. There's a blog somewhere, I can't remember what it's called, that does nothing but create gelled shots. Agar features prominently.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:16 PM on February 3


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