I have just spent several days in the hospital after emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder. As part of the preparation for the surgery I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything for an entire day, then wasn’t able to eat anything for a day afterward. When I was finally allowed to put food in my mouth, my first meal was Jell-O. In all honesty, I don’t eat a lot of Jell-O these days. It’s not something I ate often growing up, either, but when hospital staff put a bowl of Jell-O in front of me earlier this week, I was ecstatic.
Jell-O, powered and flavored gelatin, has been around since the turn of the twentieth century. Prior to the development of its powdered form, gelatin was a delicacy generally reserved for royalty. Going all the way back to the 1400s, it has allowed chefs to infuse different flavors and ingredients into a gelatin-filled mold of many shapes and sizes. Movies depicting royal banquets of Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often feature elaborate gelatin mold deserts among the gluttonous spread.
Jell-O itself dates back to 1897 in LeRoy, New York. Pearle Bixby Wair, a carpenter and cough syrup manufacturer, trademarked the Jell-O we know and love. The original flavors were strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon. After being acquired by the company that would eventually become General Foods, Jell-O struggled for relevance in the American food scene. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century when Jell-O began to boom.
New flavors including cherry, lime, apple, blackberry, and many more brought just about any flavor one could hope for to the American masses. Jell-O even gained popularity as alcoholic Jell-O shots enjoyed by college kids everywhere. When I was in college, one of the grocery stores near campus sold Jell-O in a display with the small plastic cups needed to make the snack that livens up any fraternity party.
I had Jell-O shots from time to time in college, and have had the Jell-O cups you throw in lunch boxes as well, but homemade Jell-O cut up into squares and put in a bowl is something I’ve never done. I know, it’s disappointing.
Worse was the reaction of my kids upon entering my hospital room and seeing the cup of Jell-O. My five-year-old son looked at the bowl, his eyes grew big, and he said, “Daddy, what’s that?” I replied, matter-of-factly, “Jell-O.” With a puzzled look on his face he said, “What’s Jell-O?” My nurse, who was also in the room, nearly fell over, and shame and sadness filled my soul. How could my kids not actually know what Jell-O is? I’ve not made it at home for them, but still. How badly have I failed my children?
My son asked if he could have it and, being a pain-riddled, ravenous for real food man, I quickly barked, “No!” It was the most amazing thing I had seen placed in front of me in days. There was no way I was sharing it with anyone, even my first-born child.
The last thing I had eaten was the pizza that later came up time and time again before I had given up and visited the emergency room in the middle of the night several days beforehand. As I ate the first bite of the cherry Jell-O, it warmed my heart and made all that pain slip away. At least for a moment. It was so comforting, so reassuring, the sign that real food was on the horizon. It was perfect.
Now that I’m back home and on the mend, one of the first things I did was go to H-E-B for the necessary ingredients for homemade Jell-O. It’s amazing just how easy it is to make. Take some packets of Jell-O, add some warm water, mix it around, and then you’re done. All you have to do is throw it in a pan, put it in the refrigerator, and wait for it to chill. Then you cut it out in whatever shape you wish and dig in.
Since my kids were getting their first real exposure to Jell-O, I opted for their favorite flavors and colors. We went with cherry for my son and orange for my daughter. They loved it, and I no longer feel like an epic parental failure. As I work my way up to breads, veggies, and eventually back to good ‘ol Tex-Mex, barbecue, and pizza, I’ll never forget that it all started with the perfect simplicity of Jell-O.