LIFE is just a bowl of Jell-O in countless American kitchens every summer. Served with fruit or by itself, in cubes or fancy molds, the shimmery dessert refreshes many a sweltering soul.
But like a layer in our cultural parfait, the trademark Jell-O product - which accounts for about 80 percent of the gelatin market - has put a streak of quivering kitsch in United States history. Long before comedian Bill Cosby started promoting it or Kraft General Foods took it under its corporate wing, Jell-O was a solid - well, almost solid - presence on American dinner tables.
These were the days, circa 1900, when Norman Rockwell illustrated Jell-O recipe booklets, when the cherub-faced Jell-O Girl was the Cosby of print advertisements, and when people had to choose among only six flavors, rather than the 21 on the market today.
This summer, here at the Evergreen House museum's "Molding of America" exhibit, Jell-O is jiggling all sorts of memories for visitors.
Normally, the Civil War-era house on the campus of Johns Hopkins University is a venue for more scholarly exhibits, says Judith Gardner-Flint, the Evergreen House's librarian, who has collected Jell-O memorabilia for 12 years.
"I just put this together for a little bit of summer fun," she explains, adding that it has turned into a bigger attraction than anyone thought.
"Everyone has an opinion of Jell-O," she says. "They love it or they hate it."
The exhibit is pure Americana, with early-century advertisements, promotional inserts, and illustrated recipe booklets that feature everything from a simple Strawberry Whip to the more complex Jellied Vegetable Macedoine in Tomatoes.
"It's very much a part of American food folklore," says Ms. Gardner-Flint.
Jell-O can rightly claim its place in popular culture - from Jack Benny promoting it on his 1930s radio show to Rip van Winkle and Robinson Crusoe enjoying it in the slightly altered fairy tales that were included in the company's promotional inserts.
As times changed, so did Jell-O. At its debut in the late 1800s, it was "the dainty dessert" that could be used in dishes like Charlotte Russe. It gradually was included in "main menu" dishes like Chicken Mousse and a version of Waldorf Salad. And by the diet and fitness craze of the '80s, the slogan "There's always time for Jell-O" became "There's always room for Jell-O." Publishing pamphlets
Not surprisingly, it was the company's early marketing techniques that attracted Gardner-Flint to the versatile product.
"They were so aggressive in their advertising," she says. "They used every format that was out there."
At one point during the early days, the Jell-O Company was distributing more than a million promotional pamphlets a year, says Jan Longone, a culinary historian in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Anything that reaches that many people is going to have an influence" on American history, she says.
One of the most visible trademarks was the Jell-O Girl, created in 1904 to convey the idea that Jell-O was a dessert easy to prepare and one that children would enjoy. A series of illustrated inserts featured the rosy-cheeked child posing in various places around the world, dressed in traditional garb.
"People would see her picture and immediately know that's Jell-O," says Gardner-Flint.
Jell-O's Horatio Alger-type owner, Frank Woodward, was the man behind the initial marketing strategies. He gave out free samples at social gatherings. He sold his product to his employees at a discount and they, in turn, would sell it to others at a profit.
This early networking probably made it easier on the folks at Kraft General Foods, who today sell about 250 million boxes of Jell-O a year. Also keeping Mr. Woodward's dream alive are restaurants like "Hello I'm Jell-O" in Greenville, Miss., that features a Jell-O-only menu, and "Miller's Dining Room" in Lakewood, Ohio, which has served more than 200 varieties of gelatin salads and desserts in the last quarter-century.
Jell-O Popcorn (strawberry Jell-O, corn syrup, butter, and sugar poured over popcorn) and Jell-O Pizza (strawberry Jell-O with a fruit- or M&M-topped cookie crust) top the menu at Hello I'm Jello.
The 12 varying items offered daily range from 69 cents for a parfait, to $1.29 for the more dramatic Jell-O Ribbon, a combination of sour cream and 10 different flavors of gelatin.
At Miller's Dining Room, "Jell-O is our best seller," says Natalie Fedyniak, who has presided over salad preparation for 27 years. One of the most popular salads, she says, is called "Perfection," a lemon gelatin mold with finely chopped cabbage, green peppers, and carrots. Old recipes on display
A second favorite is "just plain old red Jell-O." With fruit or without, Ms. Fedyniak says it remains one of the most popular desserts at the restaurant. "I am sure it brings back memories for a lot of people," she says.
Bill DeWolff, a retired schoolteacher here, recalls as he wanders around the two-room exhibit that one of the few ways his mother could get him to eat vegetables was by putting them in a gelatin mold. And Jan Longone fondly remembers the stained-glass cake her aunt used to make, a child's delight of whipped cream, graham crackers, and several kinds of fruit Jell-O.
There are some old recipes on display at the Evergreen House that visitors may want to forget: Spinach-Lemon Jell-O, for one. Another questionable dish: Salad Novelty, which calls for Coca-Cola, lemon Jell-O, water, and salt.
But don't be so sure that even the most unappetizing-sounding dishes won't turn out tasty, admonishes Lynn Belluscio, who this spring organized an edible Jell-O exhibit in LeRoy, N.Y., the birthplace of Jell-O. It featured dishes for the curious and hungry who flocked to the exhibit to sample dishes like Jell-O Horseradish, ("This was the real sleeper," she says: "Everyone thought it was great and asked for the recipe"), Watermelon Jell-O with Raisins, and even Prune Jell-O ("Not a favorite of the young er visitors").
Nothing turns up noses more, however, than the myth of how Jell-O is made. Popular belief has it coming from horses' and cows' hoofs. But hoofs "do not contain the necessary collagen," huffs a Kraft document on the subject. Commercial gelatin is derived, it says, from soaking animal (usually pig or cow) hides and bone in acids, then boiling them to extract the gelatin, and finally turning it into a dry powder.