“Gelatin is a very versatile medium, and it begs to be manipulated,” Zatta maintains. “The timing also seemed right to look for inexpensive ways to experiment with design. Given the wobbly state of our economy and the, well, economy of Jell-O, it was a perfect fit.” In three years of competition thus far (the most recent, this past June), the range and inventiveness of the sculptures has been amazing: a respectfully sculpted President Obama, pendants with Jell-O stones resembling jade and amethyst, an eerie light bulb, a jelly bird eyeing jelly worms, a multihued piano, a martini complete with olives, and more. Some of the strangest and most compelling sculptures have been gelatinous impersonations of other foods, from a hamburger complete with ketchup, pickle, and cheese to Trucker’s Breakfast, an elaborate array of eggs, bacon, pancakes with syrup, donuts, and coffee. All of it—except perhaps the bacon—looked chillingly real, only a little more shiny than usual.
A July 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal chronicled even more examples of the reemergence of Jell-O, not only as an artistic material but as—once again—a foodstuff. Harry Parr and Sam Bompas, two British designers who call themselves the Jellymongers, prepared an edible gelatin Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Royal Wedding this past spring. As a rising tide lifts all boats, even the Jell-O shot is being resuscitated. Michelle Palm’s newly published Jelly Shot Test Kitchen: Jell-ing Classic Cocktails—One Drink at a Time is a 200-page makeover of the former abused bar staple, dedicated to creating “classic cocktails translated into gelatin form, i.e. a grown-up version of the Jell-O Shot (sans Dixie Cups, of course!),” according to Palm’s Web site. The Minnesota-based author and consultant’s revamped gelatin shots often take elaborate and colorful shapes, as she attempts to re-create the entire cocktail catalog in wiggly and multilayered form.
While encouraging most of these projects—even when they don’t contain actual Jell-O brand gelatin dessert—Kraft Foods has lingered along the sidelines. But now there’s evidence the company plans on getting into the act itself. This Halloween, a Web site owned by the food conglomerate is offering free human-brain molds for Jell-O. Just the thing for a scary children’s party (or perhaps the kid in all of us), and calculated to inspire legions of next-wave Jell-O fanciers.
Robert Sietsema, restaurant critic at the Village Voice since 1993 and a former contributor to Gourmet magazine, recently wrote about spectacular restaurant failures for Gourmet Live. He’s also freelanced for Maxim and the Columbia Journalism Review, published four books of restaurant criticism, and been nominated for two James Beard Awards. Sietsema lives in Greenwich Village.