by Jennifer Scerra
There is something about gelatin molds—both glisteningly beautiful and strangely appalling, you just can’t take your eyes off of them.
Or at least I can’t.
My formative experience with gelatin came when I was seven years old and had a suspected appendicitis. For what seemed like weeks, but was probably only days, the only thing that I was allowed to eat was colorful fruit Jell-O. And when it was done, gelatin desserts had been moved firmly into the camp of “foods I didn’t like,” along with potato salad, and anything anise flavored.
In some ways, it was no great loss. In late 20th / early 21st century Southern California, gelatin desserts can be boring (plain lemon Jell-O?), or kitschy retro (ambrosia salad?). They might look interesting, but there’s nothing that you must have. Nothing worth a special trip to your favorite gelatin place, or the highlight of a fancy meal. Not anymore.
I think many of us are vaguely aware that gelatin used to be an ingredient with status. 150 years ago, before industrialized food gave us gelatin in a box, long, hot labor went into producing and clarifying gelatin. So when the Knox family made instant powdered gelatin affordable and quick in the 1890s, who wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to eat and serve what had before been primarily a delicacy for the wealthy? You could impress both yourself and your dinner guests. But that doesn’t make a food good, right?
Recipe booklets of the 1920s promised big things to those who would buy, make, and serve their gelatin products. But is any of it more than the aspirations of 1920s chefs who really wanted to be thought accomplished without spending too much time in the kitchen? Part of me is sure that the answer is no. It has been many long years since I have eaten gelatin, and surely the flavors of early 20th century canned and industrialized food is not going to win anyone back into that camp. I knew we had a number of these little books in the Museum’s collection, and I went in interested but skeptical. But then, I opened the booklets. And then I saw the small but colorful renderings of the dishes. And oh, the colors!
So after searching the pages of three booklets, I decided I am going to give gelatin another chance. Recruiting my family to help taste them, I will make three different dishes, one from each book, so one bad dish won’t spoil the whole experiment. After all, I consider myself a fairly willing eater and I’ve long since grown out of my dislike of potato salad and anise. Maybe this is the chance to finally do the same for gelatin.
The three recipe booklets that I used for my gelatin experiment came from the Homestead Museum’s excellent collection of 1920s pamphlets. Two were produced by the Knox Gelatine Company and one by the Jell-O Company. Though there is some overlap in the types of recipes covered (all three list their own version of a “Charlotte Russe”), each pamphlet has a different voice and angle that they focused on—to appeal, perhaps, to different concerns that a home cook might have.
I tried to follow each recipe as closely as possible (some old recipes make this harder than others), including any accompaniments that the authors recommended. I also recruited my non-gelatin avoiding family to give their opinions as well.
Gelatin Dish #1: Bavarian Fruit Cream
First on my to do list was a recipe from a 1929 booklet Knox Gelatine: Dainty Desserts, Candies, Salads, produced by the Knox company. The longest of the booklets at 47 pages, it was also the one that first drew me in with its glowing illustrations of the gelatin dishes.
The Knox Gelatine Company had a long history of producing these types of booklets, starting in the 1890s with recipes developed by Mrs. Rose Knox herself. Rose Knox founded the company with her husband Charles, and after his death in 1908, surprised everyone by continuing to manage it on her own.
After looking at the recipes, I ended up choosing “Fruit Bavarian Cream.” The ingredients were easily available and tasty looking, and though there were several steps to produce it, the instructions were mostly straight forward. The only moment of unclarity was the ratio of fruit juice to fruit pulp, so in the end I simply smashed seven strawberries into a measuring cup and then filled in the rest with apple mango juice. If I had chosen a brighter juice, it might have made the final product look closer in color to the illustration.
Kid 1: “I like this. It tastes like Spiderman cake.”
Kid 2: “It’s delicious. There are strawberries. Everybody says this is delicious.”
Adult 1: “Mmm. This is very good. First bite it very good. You can really taste the strawberry.”
Adult 2: “It’s so fluffy. It’s also mild. Light and foamy.”
Adult 3: “I like it.”
Adult 4: “It is ok. I’ve never had anything like this in Bavaria.”
Gelatin Dish #2: Tuna Fish Salad
The second booklet was produced by Knox’s rival, Jell-O. As opposed to Knox, Jell-O made flavored gelatin mixes that could be used by themselves or incorporated into fancier dishes. The 1928 booklet advertises five flavors, “Lemon, Orange, Strawberry, Raspberry, Cherry,” with recipes to go with each. And out of the 42 recipes, I chose “Tuna Fish Salad.”
This…well…was the most daring of the three recipes tested. I knew that for history’s sake I wanted to do a savory gelatin, as those are the oldest style of dishes. Gelatin, is after all derived from meat, and in many ways it makes the most sense to use it with meat-based dishes.
This recipe takes the old European aspic and brings it firmly into the early 1900s, with canned tuna, prepared horseradish, jarred pimentos, bell pepper, and a box of sweetened lemon Jell-O.
The recipe was easy to understand and I followed it pretty closely, only substituting smashed onion for the onion juice (I tried juicing onion with a garlic press and that didn’t really work), and a 12 oz. can of tuna for the 2 cups of tuna (which is close to 2 cups, if you fluff the meat up right). This dish was set in layers, then unmolded and served as suggested on a bed of lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise.
Kid 1: “It tastes…weird.”
Kid 2: “Not so good. I mean, I kinda liked it. I liked the tuna. I’m not so sure about the vegetables.”
Adult 1: “Challenging.”
Adult 2: “It’s not worse than tuna salad. Just different.”
Adult 3: “Actually, it isn’t that bad. Needs more horseradish.”
Adult 4: REFUSED TO TASTE
Gelatin Dish #3: Cocoa Cream
The third booklet is again produced by the Knox Gelatine Company, but has a very different focus. The Health Value of Knox Sparkling Gelatine, published in 1929 is entirely devoted to recipes promoting good health. Though it is the plainest looking of the booklets, the writers took their pamphlet seriously. “We hope you will read it carefully, and think about it deeply,” they implore on the first page.
I’ve already shared my own story of eating gelatin when sick. Many other people can surely empathize, given gelatin’s long history as a hospital or recovery food. It turns out gelatin as a food for the sick probably began in France. Extracting gelatin from otherwise unpalatable bones and connective tissue can be a way of making expensive meat stretch further when food is scarce. As such, it was utilized during food shortages in the Napoleonic war and by French hospitals trying to feed impoverished patients. In this case, the gelatin served was not in the form of fancy molded dishes, but as bouillon with gelatin (gelatin-rich broth).
These experiments with gelatin took place during the early days of food science, and French chemists recognized that gelatin contains protein, an essential nutrient without which people get very sick. Over the next century, scientists would go on to learn that protein is made up of 20 major amino acids, and that gelatin only contains significant amounts of three of these: glycine, proline and valine.
So despite what the French hoped, gelatin is not, on its own, a superfood. But by that time gelatin had already established a reputation as something to be served to those who are ailing. The Health Value of Knox Sparkling Gelatine pamphlet firmly supports this idea by dividing the booklet into many chapters, each aimed to tackling a different health challenge. They are as follows:
“Feeding of infants…Gelatin dishes especially nutritious for growing children and adults…For indigestion and stomach disorders…Obesity…Constipation…Gelatin as part of the diabetic diet…Gelatin important in tuberculosis…Diet for fever patients…The use of Knox sparkling gelatin for convalescents”
For this test, I thought about using a recipe most similar to what I remember eating in the hospital, a “Jellied Fruit Juice,” but decided instead to make something from the final chapter, entitled “Cocoa Cream.”
Although the recipe was designed for a single portion (bless the 1920s home cooks who took the time to make a single serving of this for their sick child or family member), this took the longest of all three to make and was the most involved. It is basically a custard mousse, and though not difficult, if I was doing it again I would probably either double or triple the recipe to add more servings and make the time invested more worth it.
Throughout the pamphlet, the authors praise gelatin as a way to tempt fragile appetites, and also for its ability to have different nutrients added by mixing in fruits, vegetables, broths, milk, or eggs. This Cocoa Cream uses both milk and eggs for added protein and richness, and sugar and chocolate for taste. The recipe was not as specific as I would have liked about how long to cook the egg and gelatin mixture (I let it go for about 10 minutes), but was otherwise easy to follow.
Kid 1: “It’s good! Yum! I want some more.”
Kid 2: “I can already tell from the first bite it’s delicious.”
Adult 1: “I liked the cream. I felt the mousse by today’s standards was very plain.”
Adult 2: “Tasty, but an interesting texture. I don’t mind it. Just unusual.”
Adult 3: “Rich, but not so sweet. I couldn’t eat much at a time.”
Adult 4: “Better than I thought. It’s not that sweet.”
So, what do I think now of my gelatin experiment? The recipes were fun and pretty well written. Eating the gelatin, even the tuna version, was not as awful as I feared. And I can certainly see why someone would be proud to serve one of these dishes at a dinner party. I’ve probably had enough gelatin now to last me a while, but when the next holiday rolls around…who knows? Do you have a favorite gelatin dish? How about a family recipe that shows up at holidays and parties? Let us know.