Odorless, tasteless, colorless, transparent, yet able to take on any shape, color, or flavor: gelatin and its cousins are something of a chef’s or schoolchild’s dream, making a multitude of new food types possible. In American popular culture, food with gelatin likely peaked along with sales of Jell-O mix in the 1960s, during the era of color TV, the space program and Tupperware. But the arc of gelatin’s popularity stretches back centuries and spans continents.
The oldest evidence of the gelatin-making process—boiling down scraps of animal skin and bone to release threadlike hydrolyzed collagen—involved using the process to make a basic glue used as an adhesive and binder for things like cave-paint. The Roman-era natural historian Pliny mentions the creation of a strong fish-glue through a similar method. The oldest recipes for “jellies”—gelatin-based savory dishes—date to the early 1400s. In them, collagen-rich pig’s ears and feet were boiled and then filtered into special bags.
These early gelatin dishes offered medieval diners a novel form and shape-shifting texture coupled with a means of temporarily holding off spoilage for the jelly-encased meats and vegetables. Since most Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays, late-medieval cooks developed fish jellies, usually made from eels boiled in fish-stock fortified with the swim-bladders (internal stabilizing organs) of fish like cod.
It wasn’t until the end of the medieval era that the family of jellies came to include clarified sweet treats of various degrees of rubberiness. Some of these were stabilized not by gelatin but by pectin, which is found in the cell walls of all fruits. The gummier ones often got their gel from isinglass, a food additive from Russia comprised of nearly pure gelatin from the swim bladders of Beluga sturgeons.
Gelatin’s most popular global competitor was discovered around 1660 in Japan. There one winter evening a Kyoto innkeeper named Minoya Tarozaemon noticed that some congealed seafood soup he’d thrown away outside held up well despite repeated freezing and thawing. He shared his discovery with a relative, who began harvesting and processing red seaweed into a product known locally as kanten. Seaweed-based jellies spread in popularity throughout Asia, especially in the climates of Southeast Asia, where they joined the mint-based grass jellies in local cuisines. The common English term for kanten is agar-agar, which comes from a Malay word for red seaweed. In Northern Europe, the red seaweed known as “Irish Moss” had also been gathered for centuries and boiled with milk to release the thickening agent carrageenan.
Back in Europe, in 1682 the French mathematician Denis Papin invented the steam digester, a forerunner of both the steam engine and the pressure cooker, to extract gelatin by intensely cooking animal bones. Even so, it took two centuries of development before the first industrial manufacture of gelatin (made from steam-digested “glue leather”) arrived in 1818.
The etymology of “aspic” is uncertain, though it may stem from asp, a type of poisonous snake. In any case, the first aspics began to appear on refined European tables in the late 18th century. These were clear, savory jellies, served as molded showpiece dishes containing whole or sliced ingredients. The most famous 19th-century French chef, Antonin Carême, was a huge fan of aspic, which he placed in the category he called chaud froid (French for “hot cold”—dishes that were first cooked, then served cool). Carême’s meals often featured elaborate architectural tableaux constructed from chaud froid, with many of the elements glazed with—or encased in—glistening aspic.
Carême’s creations, and a bevy of humbler applications for gelatin-based foods, created a demand for a quicker means of preparation than boiling and straining pig’s feet. The Industrial Revolution supplied the answer with the first industrial production of flavorless gelatin, delivered in easily packaged dried leaves. By the mid-1800s the New York industrialist and glue magnate Peter Cooper was redirecting some of his glue production into premade gelatins. In 1845 he patented the first gelatin dessert mix—a transparent, powdered mix of gelatin with processed lemons, sugar, eggs and spices.
Cooper’s jelly didn’t catch on, nor did (at least at first) the 1887 invention of another New Yorker, Pearle B. Wait, who concocted a mix of gelatin, sugar and food coloring that he named Jell-O at his wife’s suggestion. The trademark and formula went through several owners before the Genesee Pure Food Company began giving out short cookbooks of Jell-O recipes to help stoke demand. It worked, and Jell-O sales (and the making of dubiously tinted congealed salads) skyrocketed for several decades.
For many in the mid-20th century, gelatin was the culinary equivalent of the plastics that were revolutionizing the look of nearly all consumer goods. During the Great Depression, gelatin centerpieces provided a way to stretch other ingredients into something more substantial. Although brands like Knox benefited from the rising tide of jellies, Jell-O reigned supreme due to its canny marketing. Jell-O permeated mass-culture, with ads created by illustrators like Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish. The “Jell-O Girl” was an early spokesman, followed by radio comedian Jack Benny and, since 1974, comedian Bill Cosby.
Today, although Jell-O survives as a common dessert, shape-shifting gelatin (along with agar-agar, carrageenan and isinglass and a host of other gums) appears most frequently as an unassuming additive to foods ranging from pork terrine and fried chicken to gummy bears and chocolate mousse.