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Before Jell-O, Colorful Gelatin Desserts Were Haute Cuisine

We've had many posts about the odd gelatin recipes of the mid-20th century, the salads and main dishes made with Jell-O from recipes distributed by the company. They seem quite lowbrow now, an example of of very processed food put together as a craft of sorts. But gelatin dishes were once reserved for the very rich. Napoleon was a fan, and his chef Marie-Antoine Carême made artful creations from gelatin to impress guests. Carême later went on to cook for the kings of Russia and England.

But Carême’s love for gelatin and use of it in high-end cuisine was hardly a culinary aberration. From the early Renaissance through the early-20th century, gelatin “salads” and desserts were prestigious dishes and the provenance of master chefs. “Today, people who want to parade their wealth buy a Porsche,” argues Carolyn Wyman, author of Jell-O: A Biography. “In pre-industrial days, they would instead serve their guests fancy molded ice cream or gelatin desserts.”

The contrast between modern American and historic views of gelatin is striking. So why exactly was it such a valued food for so long? And how did it fall from grace?

The answer is the same as many other examples of conspicuous consumption -the pre-industrial gelatin desserts were difficult to make, and therefore costly. Read about gelatin desserts before Jell-O came along and made it ubiquitous at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Roberta F.)


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