Saturday, May 30, 2015

The New Joys of Jell-O

I've read a lot of books about the birth of "American cuisine". They tend to focus mostly on what that idea even means, incorporating a lot of discussion of regional dishes, farm to table philosophies, and preparations and cooking styles that are updated, modified versions of classical French, Spanish, Italian, and other cuisines. In her book My Life in France, which I read last year, Julia Child mentions that at the time she was shopping Mastering the Art of French Cooking to publishers one of the best-selling cookbooks in the country was based entirely on canned goods, and making fast meals just by opening them. This is a style that still exists today, but for the most part food writers like to gloss over the time when cookbooks like the one I found today at the Friends of the Library book sale were both common and acceptable.

Allow me to present:

The New Joys of Jell-O

Copyright 1973 by the General Foods Corporation, I turned the pages in fascinated horror. Many of my friends have linked to articles and slideshows on the web showing gelatin horror after gelatin horror, but never did I imagine that I would one day hold a book of recipes for these nightmares in my hands, and that it might only be two dollars.

I was so excited I started reading it in the parking lot.

With my car running.

Even thought the gas light was on.

The New Joys of Jello finds ways to incorporate Jell-O into every meal, although it's really fixated on desserts and salads to the point that there are three different chapters for desserts (Family Desserts, Bring on the Super Desserts, and Centerpiece Desserts) and four for things that claim to be salads (Salads that Help Make the Meal, Sociable Side Salads, Salads for the Slim Life, and Salads for Special Events). There's something in there called Barbecue Salad, which seems to be a lump of barbecue sauce gelatin that you serve on a lettuce leaf with a suggested side of mayonnaise, a recipe that I stared at for at least a minute as I tried to imagine how and why someone might think it was a good idea to make and serve such a thing and who might eat it, and I can't even describe the way reading the Creamy Bleu Cheese Salad recipe made me feel inside other than to say that I felt my stomach give the kind of slow-motion barrel roll normally reserved for astronauts in low gravity or the second before the roller coaster drops at the top of the first giant hill.

Every recipe in this book, especially the ones with photographs, both attracted and repulsed me at the same time. It's like I was a naïve yet fascinated virgin in the Red Room of Pain but all of the kinky sexual torture devices were bowls and platters filled with quivering lumps of gelatin.

I finally decided to start flipping through until I spotted one that I had ingredients on hand for, which meant that eventually it was my turn to bring on the super desserts.

topaz parfait (1)

The sort of sad part is that not only did I have the ingredients on hand, but I probably also own that guy's tie, and have probably worn it to work within the last year.

I settled on the Topaz Parfait, which I had everything for except whipped cream. Just in case you want to play along at home:

Topaz Parfait

1 box lemon Jell-O mix
1 cup strong coffee
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark rum
1/2 cup cold water
Whipped cream (the recipe said to buy a mix for this and prepare as directed, but I just bought a can of Reddi Whip)

I brewed up the coffee in my Keurig, because generating plastic waste with each cup of coffee harkens back to the capitalist spirit that pervaded the country when this book was published, and then brought it to a boil on the stove. Somewhere an Italian American playing a Native American was crying a lone tear at my wastefulness, but I pressed onward, adding the sugar and Jell-O mix and stirring until everything dissolved. Once it did, I removed the pan from the heat, added the water and rum, gave it another stir, and poured it into a 9 inch round glass baking dish. Two hours later, the gelatin half of the Topaz Parfaits had cooled:

topaz parfait (2)

I call that photograph "Topaz Parfait Self Portrait", and pretend that I deliberately included myself in the image.

The Jell-O seemed firm enough to slice when I poked it, so I tried slicing into cubes as directed, but the cubes crumbled a little:

topaz parfait (3)

I figured the imaginary guests at my pretend dessert party wouldn't care if the chunks weren't perfectly square and began to layer them in a glass with whipped cream in between. While doing so, I resisted the urge to taste it, but did lean over and inhale deeply.

It smelled like nothing.

No coffee, no lemon, no rum.

I could have been spooning in cubes of inert plastic.

When I was done, I compared my finished product:

topaz parfait (5)

to the picture in the book, where the parfaits were part of a buffet of Super Desserts:

topaz parfait (4)

I decided that it was close enough, and dug in a spoon.

It's hard to precisely describe the flavor. It's very sweet, but there's still a bitter coffee undertone. I don't taste lemon at all. I kept taking bites, trying to formulate a better description, and suddenly realized I'd eaten over half of it. It was good, and didn't taste like anything I've ever eaten before. I'm not sure if I would ever bring it to a party, like the cookbook says I should, but I might actually make it again.

Right after I make the eggnog Jell-O thing on the far left in that buffet photo.

And maybe the Barbecue Salad.

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