If you've eaten Jell-O recently, chances are that you've either a) been in the hospital b) only did so because there was alcohol involved or c) live in Utah, which sports a so-called "Jell-O Belt."
Though rainbow Jell-O molds and salads were a ubiquitous part of social gatherings a few decades ago, the food-like substance that begins as a dyed powder has fallen out of favor with most of us. It's a subject of mighty fascination for Pam Elder, a member of the Culinary Historians of Northern California who will be giving a talk about Jell-O at Omnivore Books on July 24, which will be accompanied by a Jell-O art contest.
For those born this century, Jell-O is a dyed powder made from the collagen extracted from the connective tissues and bones of animals, meaning it's definitely not vegan-friendly.
Elder, who lives in Orinda, first became interested in Jell-O when she met Oakland photographer Pat Monaco, who collects Jell-O related advertisements and ephemera (Monaco too, will be at the talk). Elder herself grew up in the 50s and 60s eating Jell-O for dessert every night, and in her world, "a buffet without [a Jell-O dish of some kind] was disappointing to say the least."
Monaco's collection shows "the range that Jell-O brought the American homemaker in terms of its potential for creative expression," says Elder, "though some of the [recipes] you wouldn't want to eat, but they're beautiful."
Elder appreciates the substance for its versatility, noting that it can be used for side dishes, salads, mains and desserts, but also as an "amazing medium," meaning that she has seen entire cities or the human body crafted out of the stuff.
She can also point to numerous websites where one can find all kinds of wacky experiments with Jell-O (perhaps the strangest is using Jell-O to make ballistics gelatin, which was then used to test how then Vice President Dick Cheney could have shot his hunting companion Harry Whittington).
Elder emphasizes that she's not affiliated in any way with Jell-o or Kraft Foods. She can even understand why the stuff has fallen out of favor. "It's not Michael Pollan-approved," she says, "People have concerns regarding dyes and excessive sugar being connected to autism in children." But overall she espouses a Julia Child-like approach: "Everything in moderation."
Elder will be speaking at 6:30 p.m., Omnivore Books on Thursday, July 24. Bring an edible Jell-O creation for judging and eating.