Wobbly wonders: Gelatins were once haute cuisine

By Merry Post

Special to The Ellsworth American

It wobbles and rebounds like an alien life form. Once an ornament for elaborate banquets, it became an odd form of salad popular in the 1950s. But gelatin, or jelly if you are British, actually goes back centuries in European cuisine.

Long before the age of Jell-O, foods made from gelatin were considered a mark of sophisticated entertaining. These edible gels were based on collagen, an animal protein. Cooks boiled bones and skin for hours to obtain the gelatin that allowed them to make shimmering aspics to dress up poached fish or cold meat. Medieval cooks in noble households molded gelatin into elaborate shapes for display, layered different colors of gelatin and created fancy macedoines (gelatins with suspended bits of fruits or vegetables).

Isinglass, which was the dried swim bladder of a fish, and Irish moss (a seaweed) also were used to make gels, but the latter did not offer the bouncy, translucent quality of collagen-based gelatin.

In the 19th century, blancmange (a milk pudding) or aspic made from calves’ feet and flavored with lemon and spices were considered the perfect food for invalids. Translucent jellies made with wine or fruit juice were popular for dinner parties and looked festive sparkling under candlelight.

It is hard to imagine the cachet that wine- or fruit-flavored gelatins had before Jell-O became a mass-produced convenience food. For example, Queen Victoria’s Christmas dinner in 1899 featured Gelée d’Orange à l’Anglaise, or orange gelatin.

To make gelatin a convenient and inexpensive dessert for the masses, someone had to invent a way to mass-produce gelatin powder. Peter Cooper did just that. He was the same man who invented the first American steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb. Powdered gelatin was the accidental byproduct of his research into the manufacture of glue. He patented his gelatin powder in 1845, but it did not find a market at first. But around 1895 a candymaker, Leo Hirshfield, mixed sugar and flavors with powdered gelatin and packaged it as a quick dessert; he achieved modest success. But his name for the product, Bromangelon, was a dud.

Others also were working on producing gelatin desserts. In LeRoy, N.Y., a cough syrup maker named Pearle Wait produced a fruit-flavored gelatin dessert that his wife, Mary, named Jell-O. Sadly for him, Wait sold the Jell-O name and formula. Through clever marketing strategies — including celebrity endorsements, free recipe books and free gelatin molds to make fancy shapes — the Jello-O brand took off.

Jell-O was one of the foods served to American soldiers during World War II. Food manufacturers that had contracts with the armed forces during the war had to make their products appeal to consumers when the war ended. One of their strategies was to hire home economists to devise recipes for their products.

Jell-O recipes circulated widely though free commercial cookbooks produced by what became the Kraft Company. These included ideas for working gelatin into every part of the meal. Adventurous home cooks also came up with inventive ways to use Jell-O. The 1950s were the glory days for odd salads made with Jell-O. Recipes abounded for gelatin salads that contained tuna, Spam, chopped cabbage, tomato juice, ham, Coca Cola, marshmallows or hard-boiled eggs. Some of these midcentury modern concoctions were truly horrible, for example, chicken-flavored ice cream made with gelatin or liver and canned green beans with a buttermilk and gelatin dressing.

Artistic use of gelatin has been making a comeback with a boost from the pandemic. A Facebook group formed for people who like to use gelatin in decorative and unusual ways. Their motto is “Let’s get jiggly.”

Wine jelly is one form of gelatin that is worth reviving. The finished gelatin can be served on a cracker with a sliver of cheese. Or for a more authentic presentation, wine jelly can be cubed and used as a decorative topping for a custard or rice pudding. The following recipe is adapted from Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book of 1883.


Gouldsboro artist Camille Boisvert created the illustration. Her acrylic paintings can be seen at



Two envelopes (about 1½ Tbsps.) powdered gelatin

½ cup cold water

1 cup boiling water

Two Tbsps. lemon juice

½ cup granulated sugar

1 cup wine


Put ½ cup cold water into a small saucepan, stir in the gelatin and allow it to soak for just a few minutes. Place the saucepan over low heat and stir in the boiling water, lemon juice and sugar. Continue stirring till the sugar dissolves. Remove the pan from heat.

Stir in the wine and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Pour into a lightly oiled 1-quart mold or bowl. Refrigerate the wine jelly until set. Unmold by gently pulling at one edge with a table knife. Put a plate on top and invert. If the jelly doesn’t come out, dip the dish quickly in hot water and invert onto the plate.


Merry Post

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