The history and mystery of Jell-O

The mere mention of Jell-O causes most people to smile. Since its invention in 1897, Jell-O has made it big in North America, but almost nowhere else - although one US astronaut introduced it to her Russian counterparts on the Mir space station.

Anthropologists have used the presence of Jell-O at potluck dinners to judge whether immigrants have assimilated into US life.

I know all of this because I've been reading "Jell-O: A Biography," by Carolyn Wyman (Harcourt, $15).

Instead of hunting for my Tupperware mold so I can prepare cranberry-orange congealed salad for Thanksgiving, I've been absorbing arcane facts about "America's most famous dessert."

Such facts as 312 million packages are sold annually (sales spike at Thanksgiving), and that red is, by far, the most popular color.

You don't even have to eat it. You can use Jell-O to make finger paint, construct a spewing volcano, clean soap scum from your dishwasher or shower, dye wool fabric or hair, or sprinkle it on cat litter.

In Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 silent film "The Ten Commandments," Jell-O was used to create the effect of keeping the Red Sea parted as the Israelites fled Egypt. And in "The Wizard of Oz," the horse that changed colors was actually six horses sponged down with Jell-O.

Some of the recipes concocted with Jell-O make my cranberry salad sound tame. But I'm not sure my guests are ready for guacamole made with lime Jell-O, or lemon Jell-O mixed with barbecue sauce and served over lettuce.

Still, my mouth is beginning to water at the memory of the "parfait pie" of my childhood (Jell-O, vanilla ice cream, and strawberries in a graham cracker crust). Wonder if anyone would miss pumpkin?

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