Why you should care
Because though fads change, they should not live in ignominy.
It’s been a long day for you and your companions on the royal hunt. Sitting down at the Château de Fontainebleau, known for its elegance and otherworldly charm, you await a sumptuous feast with Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte. And indeed, a towering hunk of meat awaits you. The only twist? It’s suspended above the table … floating in a magnificent, quivering molded jelly.
This is no strange witchcraft, but rather a sign of the times. The times of the early 19th century, that is, when aspic, a gelatinous dish made of animal stock, was all the rage as both a head-turning centerpiece and a clever way to preserve meats and vegetables. How did this early predecessor to Jell-O become the symbol of fine dining? You can thank the world’s first celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, who popularized aspic (and the concept of haute cuisine) while serving everyone from England’s George IV to Russia’s Alexander I.
First, it’s helpful to understand the appeal of gelatin, which has suffered a major drop in popularity in recent decades thanks to its wobbly texture and association with church picnics and hospital trays. Stretching back to medieval and Renaissance times, gelatin was very difficult to make — and thus greatly valued. The process of creating it is decidedly complex: One must heat collagen, typically from horse or pig hooves, in a precise fashion. Carême’s own recipe took hours to make, and he cautioned that certain steps sometimes just didn’t work, “notwithstanding the care you may take.” Suspending items in the gelatin requires setting one layer, placing the object inside and adding another layer, which can be time-consuming. As one 14th-century French chef, Guillaume Tirel, put it: “He who would make a gelatin is not allowed to sleep.”
Only the richest could afford such an expert, and dedicated, culinary staff, and so jelly creations became a status symbol. In Russia, kholodets were a holiday treat featuring meats floating in jelly, while Italians such as the physician Maino de Maineri created ornate suspended fish dishes. The flashiness of a gelatin model, with its vivid colors and ephemeral surface hinting at the mysteries within, was not lost on those who otherwise had little culinary interest.
While Napoléon was reportedly no foodie, he appreciated shock and awe in his diplomacy as much as he did in his military endeavors. Serving as a chef in the imperial court, Carême was given license to experiment in the name of impressing political guests, who were thought to not be ready for this jelly. Their importance was evidenced in the fact that Carême devoted an entire section to aspic jelly molds in his posthumously published 1834 cookbook The Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner. Among his recipes were aspic with truffles and poultry pieces and aspic with red calf’s tongue.
The Industrial Revolution, well, revolutionized things, gelatin included. Suddenly, jellies could be easily manufactured, so it wasn’t just the emperor of France who could afford them. Cue the introduction of Jell-O, a quick-fix gelatin mix patented in 1897 by a cough-syrup-maker in Rochester, New York. The public didn’t quite get it at first, as Carolyn Wyman recalls in her book Jell-O: A Biography. But soon, gelatin was a bona fide phenomenon: A successful marketing campaign, the advent of widely available electric refrigerators and 1950s hosting culture made Jell-O a popular ingredient, this time with housewives.
That very craze, though, may have also been the dessert’s downfall. The association with home cooking and ease destroyed its once haute cuisine reputation. “It has this connotation as a thing that is not very cool these days,” says Maxine Builder, a former editor at food site Extra Crispy. Jell-O sales in the U.S. peaked in the 1960s, with an average of four boxes purchased per person per year. Sales declined after that, but got an unexpected boost in the 1980s from two fads: Jell-O shots and Jell-O wrestling. Nonetheless, sales have continued to decline in the 21st century.
And yet, there is “something about that tackiness that I find very appealing,” Builder says. The obsession with gelatin was a 19th-century form of molecular gastronomy, she says. “Back then, creating this gelatinlike substance was the height of food science, in the same way we’re captivated by flavored foams.” Even modern molecular gastronomy incorporates gelatin, with creations like arugula spaghetti made from agar-agar. Perhaps nothing gold can stay, as Robert Frost once wrote, and sand is bound to cover all of our mighty works. Still, even should such culinary inventions as avocado toast fade from this earth, we can rest assured that once they were beloved — just like exorbitant monuments to Jell-O.