There’s a scene in the fifteenth episode of first season of The Nanny wherein Fran (Fran Drescher) chides her mother, notorious glutton Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor), for keeping a desiccated box of Jello 1-2-3 hostage in her kitchen cabinet.
"For dessert, we're having Jell-O 1-2-3," Sylvia announces to Fran, eyeing the many guests stuffed into their Flushing, Queens apartment.
"Ma, I thought they stopped making that in the early seventies!" Fran squawks.
"Well, I've been saving it for a special occasion."
This throwaway exchange gestures towards Sylvia's utter desperation when it comes to food. She is something of a primal force, and she has an appetite for much of anything, especially foods that would make anyone else's digestive tract bristle. She even loves Kraft's Jell-O 1-2-3—a bygone box of powder that would, after being submerged in boiling water and blended, cool in a fridge for three hours. Throughout this process, it would partition itself into three distinct layers, each assuming a different consistency: one gelatinous, the next with the consistency of custard, the final spongy and slight.
Kraft introduced Jell-O 1-2-3, labeled as "gelatin with two toppings," to unassuming American markets in 1969. This was a period during which Kraft had adopted some unearned hubris about the greater appeal of Jell-O. The Jell-O 1-2-3 would come in five flavors: Strawberry, Raspberry, Orange, Cherry, and Lime.
The common criticism against Jell-O is that it lacks weight or give. The Jell-O 1-2-3 seems engineered as something of a rejoinder to that lazy critique, supplying you with substance and weightlessness in equal measure. It was intended as a high-end dessert to cap dinner. Its first ad, above, was appropriately soothing and only gently bizarre. Its undertones were politely futuristic rather than outwardly dystopian, even if the dessert's ingredient calculus may have you believe otherwise.
The very process of making Jell-O 1-2-3 required a rather careful choreography; you'd need a blender and unusual reserves of patience. You'd set out four dessert glasses, empty the package's powder into a blender, add boiling water, and blend at the lowest speed for roughly thirty seconds. You'd then ramp it up and blend the mixture at blender's highest possible speed for a minute, followed by adding a cup of ice-cold water and blending at the same speed for a minute longer.
After the blending was complete, you'd fill each dessert glass half full, one by one, and let each sit for a few seconds. Then, you'd fill the glasses completely in the same order before chilling them for three hours. Who has that time these days? A rather taxing ordeal, to be sure. (The commercial above, from the mid-1980s, gets a lot about this process wrong; the Jell-O 1-2-3 must mature in the confines of a refrigerator, not before the eyes of a young child.)
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Kraft gradually began phasing the product out of American markets in the mid-1980s due to dwindling sales, part of the company's larger growing realization that it'd overestimated Jell-O's appeal. It would keep Jell-O 1-2-3 in select markets in the American midwest—Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis, to name but a few cities. It trudged along for a few years in American stores until January 1996, when the product was completely discontinued. (For reference, that episode of The Nanny aired in March 1994, speaking to the product's gradual retreat into the recesses of America's popular imagination.)
Three years ago, a food blogger won a box of the dessert on eBay and found the taste infused with chemicals and cardboard. (As Sylvia once said, that's no good.) Memories of the actual product, consumed within the span of their recommended sell dates, inspire more comfort. Level three of the dessert, I've heard, was especially appealing; it "had the texture of attic insulation and the appearance of an especially cratery part of the moon, but it floated off your tongue and down your throat as smoothly as a toboggan down a hill of fresh snow." Wow. This is a glowing review.
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The product's no longer available on eBay, but there are copycat recipes floating around online for it, even one from Kraft itself. From my purview, this registers as a nod to the reality that Jell-O 1-2-3 still has some fans—in the same way there are some people who will go to bat for Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III—though not quite enough to justify a full-blown resurgence. The recipe calls for any Kraft-brand gelatin and thawed Cool Whip Lite; rather conveniently, it requires only 20 minutes of refrigeration.
Though I've been Cool Whip abstinent for years, perhaps I'll abide by Kraft's recipe and make Jello 1-2-3 tonight; in the real thing's absence, it's the closest I'll get. I've had bodega smoothies that resemble Jell-O 1-2-3, but I've never had the real thing. Revisiting these commercials, I find myself reduced to Sylvia Fine—overcome by the kind of hunger that makes me believe I haven't eaten in years, frenzied in the face of this food item others have confined to the annals of food history. Enough. If I had a box of Jell-O 1-2-3 to call my own, I would keep it in my cabinet forever.
Remember Jell-O 1-2-3? Let us know in the comments!
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