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The Truth About Apple Pie

by David Westheimer


There are many who say American boys fought World War II to preserve moms apple pie. They may have gone to war to preserve a dessert but it wasnt moms apple pie.

It was moms jello.

(Jello is the common name; Jell-O is the name on the box.)

More moms made jello, and more often, than they did apple pie. It was so simple to make anybody could do it. Except husbands. I never knew a husband to make jello. I never did and I have been an experienced husband and father more than 50 years. Maybe its because you cant make jello in a microwave oven.

It didnt matter if you were Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. Your mom nurtured you on jello. Muslim kids, though, were jello-deprived. A Muslim relative of mine said she wasnt allowed jello because one of the ingredients of gelatin is calves hoof, which is a no-no.

My mom, though an immigrant from Russia, made jello in all its permutations. Plain—cherry, strawberry, lemon, lime—or plain topped with cream or whipped cream, with canned crushed pineapple or canned fruit salad with pecans or whipped before it set with one of those hand beaters that antedated the blender. Whipped, it took on a different look and a different texture, sort of frothy. She even tried lime Jell-O as salad, with celery and stuff and mayonnaise. It was not a hit. My wife, who is a better cook than my mom was, was big on jello, too, when our sons were growing up. They never went to war over it, though.

Though I was born before a lot of things were invented—Dairy Queen, frozen yogurt, Hadacol and radio or television—there never was a time there was no jello. So I looked it up.

Jello had its beginnings in 1847 when Peter Cooper patented a gelatin dessert. It languished 52 years until a carpenter named Pearl Ward in Leroy, New York, added flavors to the mix—strawberry, raspberry, lemon and lime— and his wife, May, named it Jell-O. Didnt help profits much. Sales were so bad he sold the whole shebang to a man named Woodward, who had founded something called the Genesee Pure Food Company, for $450. Sales were still so bad Woodward tried to sell the business to his plant supervisor for $35. No deal. But then sales picked up and by 1902 after a campaign of three-inch ads in Ladies Home Journal calling Jell-O "Americas Most Famous Dessert" they shot to $250,000.

Jell-O was launched.

During World War I, the makers of Jell-O pointed with pride to the fact that while the price of almost everything had risen, you could still buy their product for ten cents. In the early years of the 1900s, arrivals at Ellis Island were treated to Jell-O as a 'Welcome To America.'

In the Roaring Twenties, Jell-O introduced recipes for Jellied Manhattan Salad and Egg Slices en Gelle, which I dont think went over too well. I dont recall my mom ever making them, or an of my friends moms doing it, either. Norman Rockwell was one of the artists doing Jell-O ads and the company that made it changed its name to the Jell-O Company. The business was soon worth $67 million.

In the Thirties, the advent of electric refrigerators boosted the shivery dessert and Jell-O sponsored a "Wizard of Oz" radio program, with Frank L. Baum producing a series of childrens "Wizard of Oz" booklets. And in 1934 Jack Benny went on the air for the sticky, wobbly stuff. He signed on for ten years with, "Jell-O again." Bing and Dixie Lee Crosby recorded a song called A Fine Romance for Decca with a line that said, You take romance, Ill take Jell-O, and in 1942 Jell-O pudding sponsored Kate Smith on radio. The dessert got into television in the Fifties, advertising on six shows, including Roy Rogers and Bob Hope. Just about everybody knows Bill Cosby is the TV spokesman for Jell-O but do you know how long hes been at it? Since 1974, thats how long. Now that is a romance.

Nineteen eighty-four was a lean year for the company but they wanted it that way. They introduced sugar-free Jell-O Gelatin. And all those years Id been thinking jello was already a diet food.

In 1991, the Smithsonian Institution staged a conference on Jell-O history, featuring a Jell-O Jell-Off Cooking Contest. Which sounds strange to me. I never thought making jello involved a whole lot of cooking skill. Maybe its the way you heat the water.

In 1996 it was launched into space. When a mom named Shannon Lucid whose day job was astronaut went on a mission to the Russian Mir space station, she took Jell-O with her and served it to the Russian astronauts as an Easter treat. They loved it.

Today more 400 million boxes of Jell-O are sold in the US every day and thats not chopped liver. They have a lot of other flavors, though.


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