New & NowFood History

Fancy Jell-O During the Great Depression

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In Strange Food History, we're hitting the books -- to find you the strangest, quirkiest slices of our food heritage.

Today: How Jell-O was marketed during the Great Depression.

Jell-O cookbooks from Food52

“Entrees that look and taste different and (secret) may be made with yesterday’s left-overs! Salads that are new departures in taste thrills! Desserts that look like you’ve been hobnobbing with famous chefs -- yet they’re so easy to make, you can make them up while you’re thinking about it!”

So begins The Greater Jell-O Recipe Book, a pamphlet published by The General Foods Corporation in 1931. This cookbook, along with the other Jell-O-published pamphlets of the time, was just what home cooks needed at that moment: the recipes were quick, easy, and economical -- and a pathway to sophistication, to elegance, to worldliness. As Caroline Wyman says in her book  Jell- O: A Biography, “Jell-O can be and has been molded into whatever people need it to be”. In the 1930s, in a time of dust, of poverty, of hopelessness, people needed it to be sophisticated. People needed it to be elegant. People needed it to be fancy.

Jell-O book from Food52

The recipe names in these Jell-O pamphlets evoke this sense of worldliness, this sense of exoticism -- all with common, accessible ingredients. Some recipes recall names of foreign places:

Spanish Jell-O Salad: lemon Jell-O, vinegar, pimientos, white cabbage, celery, pickles
Hawaiian Sunset Mold: strawberry Jell-O, canned pineapple
Roman Sponge: cherry Jell-O, vanilla, almond extract, cream, macaroons, "nut meats"
Oriental Compote: lemon or orange Jell-O, peach juice, cold cooked rice, canned peaches
Jelly Sahara: strawberry Jell-O, prune juice, cooked prunes, confectioner’s sugar, egg whites

Others simply sound fancy:

Charlotte Russe Imperial: lemon Jell-O, egg yolks, sugar, milk, vanilla, cream
Jellied Vegetable Macedoine in Tomatoes: lemon Jell-O, tomatoes, tomato juice, cooked vegetables
Jell-O Blancmange: lemon Jell-O, cornstarch, sugar, milk, cream, vanilla

In all of these cases, the recipe names evoke something different, something far away. Spain could be reached with some pimientos and pickles. The Sahara Desert could be trekked with some prune juice and sugar. The kitchen became a place to explore the world, all with the help of Jell-O.

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