Entertaining

In 1969, Kraft Forcefully Split Its Jell-O into Three Layers

October 26, 2016

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.

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"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.)

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.

Vintage Jello. #jello123

A photo posted by A.January (@aftiej) on

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!

11 Comments

JenBohn June 5, 2018
Love love loved Jello 1-2-3! Miss it still. Every few years, I scour the internet for other fans and news of the long-gone dessert - today I found this column!
 
Marie B. October 27, 2016
Ahh, the Jello desserts of my youth! I don't think I ever ate Jello 1-2-3 because my mom would never have gone to all that trouble to make it. Anything that involved a blender was a no-go for her. It wasn't so much getting the blender out, but rather the clean up afterward that made using a blender so much trouble.<br /><br />My grandmother, on the other hand, loved to cook. And she had a regular rotation of Jello dishes - some that were "special occasion" only. My favorite one was lime and had cream cheese in there, among other things (maybe canned pineapple...I don't even remember now).
 
Esparky V. October 30, 2016
Thanksgiving dinner would not be complete without lime Jello salad: shredded cabbage, pineapple, whipped cream & walnuts! Yum!
 
Susan S. October 27, 2016
Oh, I loved Jello 123 so much! I remember being devastated when it disappeared from store shelves.
 
Mar P. October 27, 2016
My mother used to make something like this with regular jello (raspberry flavor) and whipping cream (not whipped). Since the fat of the cream will raise to the top, the translucent gelatin would be at the bottom and the cream on top. She would make this in a bund cake pan and, after unmold, it would end with the cream at the bottom and the translucent part at the top.
 
Katherine October 26, 2016
So don't tease us. How are you going to make it? Did it work? Also there used to be a layered jello with strawberries, I think cream cheese -- OK I admit it. I thought it was good. How about the dark cherry jello with canned bing cherries, cream cheese, celery? Let's have a jello party. Don't forget to wear your poodle skirts. Maybe clam dip?
 
Sam1148 October 26, 2016
Well, I didn't show the name of the historical desert. <br /><br />The "Syllabub". <br />Dozen and dozens of variation of that there. <br />https://www.google.com/search?q=syllabub&espv=2&biw=1270&bih=870&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwib4va3_vnPAhUD8CYKHachCpoQ_AUICCgB<br /><br />It's not weird at all that jello would package a similar thing.
 
Katherine October 27, 2016
Thank you so much for the link. It is fun, and I think I have my Christmas dessert alread.
 
Sam1148 October 26, 2016
It isn't so weird if you understand some food history. <br />There are two things at work here. First a https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/12/19/syllabub-or-sillabub/<br /><br />Which was a layered 'desert' with creme and fruit and sometimes wine layered in a chilled glass. Quite a few period cookbooks have that in their recipes...however layering and chilling was a problem without a decent icebox <br /><br />And another thing you're missing. <br />Jello and gelatin...and especially layered deserts depend on a refrigerator. <br />And yes, even in the 40's people still used iceboxes...especially in the areas where they didn't have TVA electricity..and in cities where people only purchases what they needed for that day from their local market. <br /><br />Having a 'fridge and making jello deserts was a bit of badge of honor saying you arrived and had electricity and a 'fridge.
 
amysarah October 27, 2016
Very true. And by extension, a fridge signaled modernity - hugely important at the time - especially for a woman (not like aspiring to be an astronaut was feasible.) <br />My MIL grew up on a farm in Kentucky, where almost everything was homegrown and prepared from scratch. When she got married and moved to a city (well a suburb) she very pointedly left baking biscuits/bread, home canning and 'old fashioned' cooking behind, embracing the life of a 'modern woman,' meaning recipes from Ladies Home Journal, e.g., "Hawaiian Pork chops" (canned pineapple,) Jello Grasshopper Pie, Pillsbury refrigerator rolls, etc. Even decades later, she was reluctant whenever I tried to draw her out about cooking on the farm, claiming not to remember. My husband only recalls her very rarely cooking old-school dishes. But I bet Jello 1-2-3 was in her repertoire!
 
Julia G. October 26, 2016
Ugh. So weird but so good. My favorite dessert as a kid!