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Random Genius: Jell-O


There's always room for repurposed animal remains.

Wow, do kids love them some Jell-O. I mean, those little guys go crazy for the stuff. And if you top it with a dollop of whipped cream, you can most assuredly buy their obedience. For the Romper Room set, Jell-O stands in sharp contrast to chore foods - you know, the meats and vegetables ankle biters are made to eat on their journey to Delicious City.

I wonder how they'd react if they found out, right in the middle of a mouthful of lime-green Jell-O, about the dessert's unorthodox beginnings.

It's funny that a foodstuff that looks so totally and completely unnatural -- it jiggles, it's practically glow-in-the-dark and its texture is downright otherworldly -- would be made of animal protein.

The process dates back as far as the Middle Ages and receives a shout out in the diary of John Evelyn, whose astute observation of 17-century England gives witness to important events of the time, such as the execution of Thomas Wentworth, the Great Plague of London and, well, gelatin.

Minyanville's Random GeniusAnimal remains -- mostly bones, cartilage and tendons -- are boiled for several hours. Once complete, they're strained and discarded. The liquid sets for a 24-hour period, after which fat is skimmed from the top (it's a little like making chicken soup).

And voila! A totally "odorless, tasteless, colorless thickening agent." A blank canvas, if you will.

That's how chefs of the day viewed it, anyway. When the stuff wasn't being used to package and preserve foods, it was mixed with flavors by that era's versions of Mario Batali and Bobby Flay. During the Victorian era, "jelly moulds" were a dinner-party status symbol and the exclusive province of the well-heeled, mostly because the long, laborious process behind it required ever-loyal servants.

But that would all change when a group of Americans -- their relentless ingenuity spurred on by their need to be gratified instantly -- got their mitts on gelatin. History holds that inventor Peter Cooper -- he of the Tom Thumb steam engine -- obtained a patent for something quick, easy and resembling modern Jell-O in 1845. But it never caught on.

Fast-forward to LeRoy, New York, 1897, where a carpenter named Pearle Wait birthed a fruit-flavored gelatin dessert that, according to the Jell-O Gallery's (a dedicated museum of sorts) website, his wife May first dubbed Jell-O.

Lacking the seed money and marketing know-how, Wait sold his secret sauce to a local businessman named Frank Woodward in 1899. For $450. (The bargain-basement price at which he sold the Brooklyn Bridge is unknown.)

What followed was an inspired campaign for the hearts and minds of housewives through door-to-door initiatives, widely circulated recipe books, memorable jingles and a 30-year association with comedian Bill Cosby - fodder for dozens of Saturday Night Live sketches.

Small wonder the dessert has come to be known as America's Favorite - and has been repurposed as edible alcohol and a surface for half-naked wrestling.

Jell-O, now owned by Kraft (K), continues to jiggle on the spoons of everyday folk: Men and women who recently had orthodontic work; really, really old people; and the kids who like it best.
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