The History of Jell-O


Originally there was the hoof. Even to primitive man, this meal, in all its varieties— goat, deer, buffalo, and all its close relatives, sloth claw, mammoth nail, and, of course, monkey toes—had to be a difficult chew.

Anthropologists conjecture (whenever they conjecture about Jell-O) that for centuries man must have attempted to soften the hooves by pounding them with rocks, grinding, stirring, or applying softeners derived from acidic berries. As techniques gradually improved over time, the idea of flavoring the softened hooves must have come into play. Imagine being able to both eat and taste a softened hoof! Welcome to the world of cuisine.

The first mention of Jell-O in early writings was in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In “The Tale of The Wife of Bath,” the word used is “maugre” which then meant “in spite of” and does not refer to Jell-O in its modern sense. “Maugre” became old French “l’mauge,” a word that was not assigned any meaning but kept in reserve if should a definition later need a word. “L’mauge” became Middle English “Maggre” which then became Latin “Mager,” which came back through French again as “L’Mager” and ultimately became the modern English “Jello.”

Eventually, early jellos were softened to the point where they became liquids. The beverage was born, and refreshment would never be the same. For centuries jello would be the poor redheaded bastard stepchild of the culinary world. During the Middle Ages, cooks began adding jello to meats to make them less appetizing, aiding in the tradition of meat hoarding.

At last, in 1845, Peter Cooper invented a powdered form of jello, which, when mixed with sugars and various other slightly poisonous chemicals, could take on the flavors of some sort of red fruit, or a green one, or purple. The product was not a success until decades later, when it was discovered that by adding water one could turn the powder into a jiggly, translucent dessert. In 1891, during a national mania for new punctuation (during which novelties such as the demi-colon, the triple apostrophe, and the “quotation mark” came into brief use), the “hyphen” (or “hy-phen” as it was written then) was added to ”Jello,” making it stupid.

Over the years, attempts have been made to improve the unnaturally delicious nature of Jell-O (during the centennial of the United States Capitol building in 1893, a fad of unnecessary capitalizations of the beginnings and endings of words further deformed “Jell-O”), which resulted in various fruits being suspended in domes of the stuff. It has never worked. Even Cool Whip (from the old German “Kullwhippe”, meaning “made from brains.” This product went through a similar path to its current name as Jell-O did.) is gratuitous. You’re already eating some sweetened subsolid. Does it really need to be sweetened and softened further? Just eat the damned Jell-O. It’s squishy and insubstantial and you can squirt it through your teeth, or, if you’re some poor toothless bastard who can only eat Jell-O, your gums.

What does the future hold for Jell-O? Probably a dystopian nightmare.


2 replies
  1. avatar
    John Kilian says:

    First Nation people would use the whole carcass of any animal they killed. Jell-O originally was gathered from the shavings left-over from scrimshaw, which is why it includes the Native American words “Jell” for “whale” and “O” for “whatever flakes off when you carve it with a knife”. French traders capitalized them, as they typically covered up their ignorance of foreign languages by simply designating every word they did not know as a place name. Hyphenation was inserted by the British, primarily to make them different looking than the French version. Jell-O is still accepted currency in First Nation economies, but is not redeemable at large scale Bing-O operations.


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