LEROY, N.Y. There's always room for Utahns at the Jell-O Gallery. This small museum in LeRoy, N.Y., celebrates the invention of the fruit-flavored dessert there more than 100 years ago.
Mention you're from Utah, and you're likely to get a knowing grin from your tour guide, who will point out Salt Lake City's top billing on the list of Jell-O per-capita consuming states.
It's true that Jell-O was voted Utah's official snack food by the Legislature, and the green Jell-O pin was a hot collector's item during Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Games. But it also happens that LeRoy sits just off the New York State I-90 Thruway, and a few exits west of Palmyra. Apparently, travelers to the boyhood home of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have found the LeRoy museum a pleasant side stop.
Gallery patrons can vote for their favorite flavor, and "I can always tell when that (Hill Cumorah) pageant is going on, because the votes for lime always go up," said Lynne J. Belluscio, the museum's curator.
The Utah connection with Jell-O is so strong that during the 2002 Olympics, Belluscio and Jell-O spokesman Bill Cosby opened a temporary exhibit in the downtown ZCMI Center. At the time, Belluscio issued a public invitation to come to LeRoy to see the rest of the gallery, joking that Utahns could get a discount on admission.
Adult admission is $3 per adult (and no, I didn't get a discount, nor did I ask for one).
Housed in an old school building, the gallery is open May 1-Oct. 31 "because there's no heat in this building," explained tour guide Doreen Bortle. It's open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1-4 p.m. on Sundays. Open for almost 10 years, Belluscio said, the museum gets about 10,000 visitors a year. Some are from as far away as South Africa and The Netherlands, added Bortle.
Today, gelatin is taken for granted as a low-cost treat as well as a medium for wrestling, slip 'n' sliding or filling up swimming pools. But in the 1800s, only the wealthy could afford dishes made with it, said Belluscio.
"It was a two-day, very involved process, so you needed to have servants who did it," she said. "Also, the sugar and flavorings were very expensive. So the invention of Jell-O was really the democratization of an elitist food."
A recipe from the 1800s for Calf's Foot Jelly involves long hours of boiling, skimming and straining calves' feet before flavoring and sugar could be added. Then the jelly mold would be packed with ice to set overnight.
Various forms of gelatin, such as Knox, were on the market, but they required soaking, cooking and straining and were unflavored.
Enter LeRoy resident Pearle Wait, "who was apparently a pretty good carpenter because people are still living in homes that he built," said Bortle. Wait's side business was concocting "patent medicines," such as cough remedies and laxative teas. In 1897, he added some coloring and flavoring to gelatin to make a fruit-flavored dessert that his wife, May, named Jell-O. She likely borrowed the "-O" ending from Grain-O, a cereal-based coffee substitute made by Orator Woodward, another LeRoy resident.
According to the museum, Wait lacked capital and marketing experience. In her book, "Jell-O: A Biography," Carolyn Wyman writes one of his early ads featured a drawing of children with the text, "We don't get any more whippings! Our mama makes Jell-O for us and we don't have to get into her jelly jars any more."
In 1899, Wait sold his formula to Woodward's Genesee Pure Food Co. for $450. Now, Woodward owned both Grain-O and Jell-O.
At first, few bought the flavored gelatin powder. So the sales staff gave out free boxes door-to-door, said Bortle.
"Since it was free, they went ahead and tried it, and sure enough, it jelled," she said. "Seven years later, Woodward had made $1 million. That's a lot of little 10-cent boxes."
The company boosted sales by publishing numerous gelatin recipes, and the advent of household refrigerators made the jelling process easier. By the 1930s, almost one-third of the salads in just about any cookbook used gelatin, according to "Jell-O: A Biography."
In 1925, Wait's descendants sold the Jell-O Co. for $67 million to Postum Cereal Co., which later morphed into Kraft/General Foods. Jell-O continued to be made in LeRoy until 1964.
"The plant was bursting at the seams, and they moved the whole process down to Dover, Delaware," said Bortle. "It was very hard on the economy here."
Bortle pointed out that although the name "Jell-O" was patented, the recipe for making it wasn't. One exhibit shows gelatin products from all around the world, including a vegetarian type called Agar Agar, which is made from seaweed.
Which brings up less-savory questions about regular gelatin's origins. Belluscio said contrary to popular belief, Jell-O was never made from horses' hooves. The protein-rich collagen needed to make gelatin was extracted by boiling the bones, tendons, ligaments and hides of beef and pork.
Belluscio puts it in practical terms: "They were taking animal parts that you can't use for anything else, so it was a way to use up all the animal," she said. "Today, they extract the collagen by centrifugal force from the animal hides. It's a much easier process now."
"It's the same thing when you cook a turkey, you get that gelatin in the bottom of the pan," added Bortle.Some of the things you'll see at the gallery:
Dozens of gelatin molds, both metal and ceramic. In "Jell-O: A Biography," Wyman explains that elaborate jelly molds were a status symbol before Jell-O made them affordable to the public. The company sent out nearly a million aluminum molds between 1925-30 for a small shipping and handling fee.
Memorabilia such as Jell-O Barbie, Jell-O themed key chains and suspenders.
Promotional items, such as "Little Wizard of Oz" booklets that were sold in 1933 for 10 cents plus a Jell-O box top.
Photos of employees working in LeRoy's Jell-O factory and the company's old wooden delivery boxes.
A display on the Jell-O Girl, star of the company's advertisements in the early 1900s. She was the 4-year-old daughter of advertising artist Franklin King.
Magazine ads by famous illustrators, such as Norman Rockwell, Rose O'Neill and Maxfield Parrish.
A display on celebrities who pitched Jell-O: Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and, currently, Bill Cosby. (Cosby visited LeRoy in 2004 to open this exhibit.)
A gift shop with themed T-shirts, hats, note cards, refrigerator magnets, mugs, aprons, Christmas ornaments, and so on.The Smithsonian, it ain't. But it's an interesting stop for those traveling though upstate New York or for Jell-O fans who want to raise the number of lime-flavor votes.
Here's an early 20th-century Jell-O recipe:
LEMON JELL-O WHIP WITH PRUNES
Dissolve a package of lemon Jell-O in a pint of boiling water and set it aside until it begins to thicken. Then beat with an egg-beater until it reaches the consistency of whipped cream. Stir in a cup of chopped prunes, which have been stewed until very tender. Very much better if a cup of whipped cream is added. Turn into mould to harden. Add more sugar to the water the prunes were cooked in and boil this down to a thick syrup. When cold, pour it about the base of the dessert after you have turned it out, and arrange whole prunes as a garnish.
"Jell-O, America's Most Famous Dessert" series, published between 1906-1920
GINGER ALE SALAD
Pour one-half cup of boiling water over one package of Lemon Jell-O. Set in hot water until thoroughly dissolved, stirring all the time. Cool and add 1 1/2 cups ginger ale. Set in a cold place until it begins to thicken, then stir in 1/4 cup finely cut nutmeats, 1/4 cup finely cut celery, one cup finely cut assorted fruits (pineapple, orange, apple, cherries or grapes), one tablespoonful finely cut crystallized ginger.
"Jell-O Cookbook," 1904
1 package lime Jell-O
1 pint hot water
3 tablespoons vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sliced stuffed olives
1/2 cup sliced sweet pickles1/4 cup diced celery, if desired
Dissolve Jell-O in hot water. Add vinegar and salt. Chill. When slightly thickened, add remaining ingredients. Turn into small individual molds. Chill until firm. Unmold. Serve with fish or meat. Makes 12 molds. Hospitality needn't cost you much . . . either money or pints. Try some of these color-and-savor combinations, all made with food easy to get nowadays. They'll prove to you and your friends that you can still do luscious entertaining in spite of shortages and rations. Say welcome in wartime!
"Bright Spots for Wartime Meals 66 Ration-Wise Recipes," 1944
This was a popular recipe in the 1930s.
1 can pear halves in syrup, undrained
1 cup boiling water
1 3-ounce package lime Jell-O gelatin
1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 3-ounce packages cream cheese, softened1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
Drain pears, reserving 3/4 cup of the syrup. Dice pears; set aside. Stir boiling water into gelatin and salt in medium bowl at least 2 minutes until completely dissolved. Stir in reserved syrup and lemon juice. Pour 1 1/4 cups into 8-by-4-inch loaf pan or 4-cup mold. Refrigerate about 1 hour or until set but not firm (should stick to finger when touched and should mound). Meanwhile, stir remaining gelatin gradually into cream cheese in large bowl with wire whisk until smooth. Stir in pears and cinnamon. Spoon over gelatin layer in pan. Refrigerate 4 hours or until firm. Unmold. Garnish with cinnamon, if desired. Serves 6.
"Jell-O: A Biography," by Carolyn Wyman
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