About the Project

TerraCleaver

Halloween 2009, me as a 1950s housewife with Jell-O Hand of Glory

Back in 2009, on a hot summer day, I went to the Loews Cinema in Harvard Square (RIP) and saw the movie Julie and Julia. While I enjoyed the parts about Julia Child in Paris learning to cook and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the parts about Julie Powell in NYC writing her through-cooking blog of Mastering the Art of French Cooking frankly bugged me. Maybe it was Amy Adams’s patented perkiness, or maybe it was the fact that this fool Julie had gotten not only a book deal but a movie deal out of her blog. Who can say?

Chinee aspalagus, from "The Art of Chinese Cooking, by the Benedictine Sisters of Peking"

Chinee aspalagus, from “The Art of Chinese Cooking, by the Benedictine Sisters of Peking”

So I grumbled about it to my husband, Bryan, on the way home, and he proposed that if it bothered me so much, I should start my own through-cooking blog. When we got home, he pulled a book out of our bookcase full of recipe books. It wasn’t Mark Bittman’s classic How to Cook Everything, nor Alice Medrich’s Cocolat, nor The Betty Crocker Cookbook, nor even Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The gauntlet that Bryan threw down before me was the 1974 edition of General Foods’s The New Joys of Jell-O.

Now, we had originally bought The New Joys of Jell-O because we’re fascinated by vintage cookbook illustrations, such as the cheerfully racist line drawings found in cookbooks of the fifties and sixties, and the dated and oddly colored photographs that appeared from the fifties through the seventies  – the weirder and uglier, the better. The promotional cookbooks that were published to boost sales of various industrial food products are generally good sources for such graphic delectables, and we don’t buy them intending to try the recipes.

Nevertheless, I’m not one to back down on a dare, so I started the Joy of Jello [sic] Project on WordPress, giving myself a year to cook my way through the book. How hard could it be? There are only 106 recipes, and Jell-O is pretty simple to make, right?

HamburgerHotdogCoverIt started off all right. I began by going in chronological order, which meant hitting the basics – Jell-O with Cool Whip dollops, cubed Jell-O, Jello-O with fruit suspended in it – all stuff we normal people ate as kids in the 1970s. When I hit the first savory Jell-O recipe, I realized that to get through this Project I was going to have to mix it up, because if Bryan and I had to spend weeks at a stretch sampling that type of recipe, we were going to go stark raving in short order.

So I came up with a schedule that alternated inoffensive and scary-sounding recipes and soldiered on. The problem was, it didn’t help that much. Bryan complained about all of them. Summer too quickly turned to winter in New England. Our cat was elderly and sick and we had to let him go. About halfway through the Project, I had, well, a bit of a meltdown. The Jell-O was bringing me no joy. I deleted the blog. I deleted my local files. I went back to leading my normal, non-blogging life, and made Jell-O no more.

While I was writing the blog, people sometimes asked me, “Why?” Once I was no longer doing it, people asked me, “Why aren’t you blogging about Jell-O anymore?” I guess the idea has a certain appeal. There’s a woman out there who attempted the same thing (in fact, she appears to have largely copied the format of my blog, stopping short of actually plagiarizing the posts) although she didn’t even get as far as I did. The Project haunted me for over four years after I tossed it.

Then, on July 4, 2014, the topic of the Project came up at a party. Friends were telling me that they’d enjoyed it and wondered why I’d stopped doing it. One friend pointed out that I might be able to retrieve it using the Wayback Machine at archive.org. Finally, I was letting myself be talked into rebooting my Jell-O blog.

I was able to retrieve 19 blog posts about Jell-O recipes I had made, sans photographs. I still had the raw photos in my iPhoto library. I had my handwritten notes from recipe number 13 on. I would still have to make a lot of Jell-O. This time around I relieved myself of the pressure of a time limit, and interspersed a few other (food-related) topics and other recipes not taken from The New Joys of Jell-O.

Even with my newfound determination, the Project proceeded in fits and starts until March 2016, when I finally buckled down and strapped on the discipline to (mostly) stick with the editorial calendar I’d set out for myself. I posted the final recipe from the book (only a week late, due to illness) on January 7, 2017. Check out the Table of Contents. They’re all there, in all their joyous, jiggling glory. Whew!

The question lingers: Why? The short answer: Why not?

4 responses

  1. Hello there. After reading several pages on this blog, I just wanted to drop you a big thank you. You see, I found The New Joys of Jell-O cookbook at a thrift store last year, and after having read it from cover to cover with my jaw on the floor the whole time, I began to think that the Internet needed to know about the insanity therein. I decided that, if someone hadn’t already taken on the task, I would need to recreate and chronicle each and every recipe for posterity. But fortunately, you’ve already done it here! So thank you for sparing me and probably several other folks that tribulation. Now I feel content merely making the recipes that seem somewhat promising.

    However, I do need to track down a copy of The Joys of Jell-O and find out if anyone’s recorded all of those recipes.

    One last note: while I like your theory about the GF R&D people going mad with boredom over the course of writing TNJOJ, I firmly believe that the more interesting recipes came about due to the equal quantities of Jell-O and LSD being ingested in the labs at the time.

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    1. Hi Abigail! Glad to be of service. I know a couple of other people have tried to do a through-cooking blog of The New Joys of Jell-O, but I think I may be the only person who’s succeeded. (Now I’m wondering if I should add it to my LinkedIn profile…) Quite a few of the recipes are based on older “classic” recipes that are now mostly forgotten, but were popular in the early part of the 20th century, but I think in a few posts I mentioned that I suspected the involvement of recreational substances. It was the early 1970s, after all…

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  2. Hello. I just want to say I LOVE your blog (I’ve only read a few items but I am hooked). I inherited this cook book from my mom….but in my mid 20s, I regrettably dismantled it – cutting it up and saving only the recipes I thought I would want to try. I have regretted it ever since, especially these last few years. Sone of my (ahem) younger friends completely missed the jello era and are perplexed when I mention some of the wacky recipes and pictures from the book.

    I wanted to try and hunt down the book – but couldn’t remember the name or the cover picture. After seeing so many options on the web (and rarely seeing any inside pages pictured), I gave up my search. Then……….I found your blog. Seeing the pictures posted from the book allowed me to verify the edition I wanted (I still have some pics from recipes I kept). I found and purchased the book online

    I love reading about your successes and failures. I made a version of a red, white, blue jello mold (making them jugglers instead). I too was impatient when adding the final layer (and didn’t let the mixture cook before adding). I quickly discovered – when you pour hot red jello onto a white layer- you get pink! Science and art in the kitchen. I don’t have the discipline or skill to do my own blog-so thanks for this. You’ve inspired me to try some of the “someday” recipes I’ve held on to over the years just to liven things up every now and again. Because…..who doesn’t love jello!

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    1. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it, and appreciate your taking the time to comment.

      You have to be careful with this Jell-O stuff, though. I ended up subscribing to a FB group called Show Me Your Aspics that’s seriously next-level jellies, and it’s tempting to pick it up again, and go beyond the General Foods promotional materials. Just have to consider whether my marriage can survive…

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