Back in my day, a dispute in my family, now referred to as the jello mold wars, caused hurt feelings that reverberate to this day. It was the 1950’s and I was a senior in high school, living at home with my folks. My relatives were a tightly knit group, socializing mainly with each other. At that time and even today, our family dinners were frequent and not just on holidays. Very important for my story is that none of these events would have been considered complete without some kind of jello mold on the table. And herein lies my story.
Let me get down to the basics about jello, more correctly referred to as Jell-O. Gelatin and sugar are the main ingredients. Jello comes in numerous colors and flavors but standbys like cherry, lime, and strawberry have always been my family’s favorites. As jello firms up, it can be coaxed into various shapes such as rings, often containing chunks of fruit. A rather pedestrian food is thus transformed into a glorious concoction called a jello mold. They achieved a place of honor and prominence in my family, bordering on an obsession
Now for an introduction to my Grandma Bea, my mother’s mother. She was omnipresent in the family. She was a large woman, both in height and heft. To add to this, she was also sharp-tongued and opinionated. The family members respected her accomplishments, none of which come readily to mind, but they also feared her. To put it bluntly, she always needed to have her own way. My mother cautioned me to do exactly what Granny wanted or live to fear the consequences. As a mere high school senior, I had little status in the family but I was already chafing at the “Grandma Bea bit.” I think that my mother would have liked to push back on her from time to time but pursued a general “peace in the family” approach.
Very important to my story is that Grandma’s Bea’s kitchen specialty was layered jello molds. In her hands, the bottom layer of the mold was always a creamy white color, provided by sweetened condensed milk. The top layer was always red or green jello, containing strawberries or cherries. These two layers were created by first pouring the bottom layer, putting it in the fridge to set, and then pouring the second layer with the fruit. When creating jello molds, the secret was to pay attention to time and temperature to avoid a mold mishap. This is easier said than done. However, jello mold mishaps were never discussed in public.
Jello molds, always on the sweet side, must not be confused with aspics that are a savory, jelled dish made with meat stock, set in a mold, and containing pieces of meat, seafood, or eggs. Aspics never took hold in the U.S. cuisine except perhaps in tony, upscale restaurants. This is one dish for which the name exactly describes its taste and appeal for me. I don’t want to get anywhere near a dish called ass-pick.
Let me describe for you the typical unveiling of one of Granny Bea’s molds at a family gathering. She would sweep into the house with a dramatic flair, often not even bothering to take off her coat, and carried the mold to the table. Then, with a well-timed sense of drama, she would tilt it over, centered on a serving dish, and shake it gently if necessary. The women in the room would then squeal with delight with the men mostly clapping or cheering.
“You’ve done it, again, Bea,” everyone would shout in unison.
I never understood what all of this gushing was about because all her jello molds looked and tasted about the same, differences being only the type of fruit in the top layer. The loudness of these shouts was very important. The next day, Granny had the habit of calling only her daughters who were the most exuberant in their praise. All of this was the standard routine until I emerged on the scene as a mold maker.
In my latter high school years, I would classify myself as a wannabe chef. I was always trying new stuff. A family picnic was coming up in the summer of 1956 and I asked my mother whether I could try my hand at making a jello mold. I emphasized to her that it would not in any way steal thunder from Grandma Bea. I wanted to give the recipe a try but not upset the delicate family balance. My mother must have been distracted at the time or perhaps she underestimated my mold-making talent. At any rate, she said yes. I developed my plan. Looking back, it seems to me that my mother was perhaps trying to shake things up a little. She would never have knowingly agreed to my request had she know what would happen next. In fact, she might even have had some plans of her own.
The jello mold I prepared does not seem very radical in hindsight. The bottom layer was white and creamy. Standard, really. For the fruit in the top layer of the mold, I did include both red and golden cherries embedded in lime jello. When I unveiled it at a family picnic, I could see that some of the relatives were impressed but reluctant to praise my work. They glanced at Bea to see how she was reacting to what perhaps appeared to be a challenge to her mold supremacy and authority. They held their collective breath, waiting for her response.
“Humph,” she said. “I can see that you have made a good effort, young man. “But how did you achieve the gaudy, golden color for the cherries. Probably some kind of toxic food coloring. I would bet my life on it.”
“No,” Granny I said. “No possible threat to your life. They are a new variety of cherries called Rainier just developed at Washington State University. Almost everyone knows about them. They’re on the shelf at most grocery stores. I think that the gold color dramatically offsets the red of the other cherries in the top layer. I think the whole presentation is striking.”
“Well, I am not going to take any chances with my health with these so-called “gold” cherries,” she said as she loaded her plate with a large serving of her own mold. All of the relatives immediately followed suit, ignoring my dish. There were a few muttered, low-level comments about some not being willing to compromise their health on some fad food. However, Granny did need to leave the picnic early. After she left, all of the family dug into, and finished, my mold, whispering a few “attaboy’s” in my ear. Everyone wanted to taste the golden cherries.
The Monday after this first skirmish in the jello-mold wars, Granny Bea called my mother and addressed her in an anxious tone. “You know, dear, I don’t think that your boy should be frittering away his time in the kitchen making jello molds that can perhaps endanger the health of the family. He needs to be studying to get ready for college.
“I will try to distract him, Mother,” she replied, “but you know that he is very stubborn. Something may be of interest to you, though. I happened to overhear him talking privately to his father last night in the living room. He was saying, as you suggested, that the canned golden cherries might not have been a good choice. He then said that he was going to include chunks of fresh pineapple to add flavor, color, and texture to the top layer of the next mold he makes.”
Granny replied: “Thats a good idea. I was just thinking about the very same thing myself. I will include pineapple in my next mold. Don’t bother telling him that you have shared this idea with me. Let’s keep this between us as a surprise.”
For the next family dinner, I did not prepare a mold, telling my mother that my earlier creation had created unnecessary tension in the family, which was unfortunate. I would follow her advice and get out of the jello mold business.
We arrived at my aunt’s house for dinner a little early and just in time to see Granny’s typical “mold entrance.” She almost shouted as she entered the dining room, “I made something special for all of you. I have included fresh pineapple in the top layer as a special treat. The mold was a little jiggly at home so I decided to un-mold it in the dining room. I have also brought one of my special serving plates to show it off properly.”
Having said this, she turned the mold upside down on the plate with a dramatic gesture. She pulled it away, releasing the jello inside. As she did this, it became obvious that the jello had not properly set and the contents began to spill over the side of the plate onto the table, The sticky liquid then began to drip on the carpet and it turned a luminescent red. Everyone in the room was in a state of shock. Some helplessly tried to catch the dripping jello from the edge of the table with their cupped hands. Granny stood frozen in her tracks.
“Granny,” I said. “What a creative idea of yours to use fresh pineapple in your mold. Unfortunately, the pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain that, when heated with the gelatin, breaks it down and keeps the mold from setting. I am sure that you will do it correctly the next time, learning from your mistakes.”
From that time forward, Granny Bea never made another jello mold, at least that the family knew of. She told everyone that she was bored with the dish and moving on to better things. We did take this idea of “new things” with a grain of salt because she never shared any of her new concoctions with the family.
One Saturday just before I was to leave for college, my mother said to me: "Let’s take a little time for you to show me some of the tricks you have learned about making jello molds.” I worked with her the whole day, preparing five molds all together.
Well, you know the rest of the story. After I gave her these pointers, she blossomed into an accomplished mold-maker. Basically, she took off from where I had stopped. She used mango and pineapple in her layers with abandon, having learned how to inactivate their enzymes. She cut miniature cubes of cherry jello and suspended them in a layer of different colors. Family members would now gasp and cheer when she brought her covered creations to the dinner table. Granny Bea was usually silent and standing at the back of the room when all of this was taking place.
My mother never overtly acknowledged the role that I had played in her transition to the reigning mold maker in the family. But everyone seemed to quietly acknowledge the role that I played in the mold wars and Mom’s emergence as the Mold Queen. I haven’t tasted jello in decades and think that I am a better person for it. Anyway, no one eats jello any more except perhaps residents of Salt Lake City.
Dedicated to the memory of my mother, Mildred Frankel Friedman.