It’s funny, but I seem to be really in the habit of posting. It’s been nagging me all weekend, that I should post something – although I’m just as glad I don’t have any more Jell-O recipes that I have to do.
The Freak Mountain furnace issue continues to drag on. Last Sunday, it turned out that we did have a frozen pipe somewhere in the downstairs radiators, so there was no heat at all down there. Local plumbers were overwhelmed because so many people were getting frozen pipes in the unusually long stretch of extreme cold weather, and we couldn’t get anyone to help us. After staying up all night to monitor the pipes and a couple of space heaters, Bryan and I stayed home from work on Monday and were there to quickly handle the situation and minimize damage when a pipe burst in the afternoon, although we did have to spend that night in the house with no heat at all, and no water. (Luckily, there was plenty of snow in the yard to melt for toilet flushing.) On Tuesday, we were able to get a plumber to replace the broken pipes, and the January thaw made the situation more manageable, but our furnace specialist proved elusive. We had to go over his head to the distributor, and that got him to finally return my calls. He came over on Saturday, diagnosed the problem with the furnace – and said he would need to get a part and might not be able to complete the repair until at least next Wednesday.
Sigh. The plumber did show us a little magic trick, which involves turning the hot water in the kitchen sink on and off a few times, to get the heat going when it cuts out for no apparent reason well shy of the target temperature. So the furnace is limping along under our careful ministrations, keeping the pipes warm so that they won’t freeze again. The house is topsy-turvy because we moved furniture and brought books, record albums, and electronics upstairs to prevent damage from burst pipes. The television is sitting on the kitchen island. My office upstairs is the warmest room in the house, so we’ve been using it as a living room, watching videos on my computer in the evenings. Our routine has been upended, and we’ve been spending a lot of quiet time in the house, listening for the ticking of the radiators as the heat comes on, ready to do the hot-water-tap trick again if it’s too quiet for too long.
What’s that got to do with joy? Well, over this MLK Day weekend, I’ve been thinking about the African-American struggle for equality and justice – not that I claim to be the most “woke” middle-aged white lady around, but these things do cross my mind, and in the context of this blog it’s because a lot of the joy in the New Joy of Jell-O Project has come from the music of some great African-American artists. As regular readers might remember, for quite some time as I’ve been cooking I’ve been listening to my “Galaxy News Radio” Pandora channel, which features artists like the Ink Spots, Roy Brown, Billie Holiday, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Ray Charles… and on and on. I listen to those artists, and I think about what their lives were like under Jim Crow, and I am awed that they were still able to put so much joy into those recordings.
When I’m feeling beat down by circumstances, like I am today, I wonder how they did it. I wonder at the resilience it must take to work to have a good and meaningful and joyful life despite systemic oppression. I recognize that my tale of woe at the beginning of this post comes from a privileged place. What I really want to say is that I have great respect for the struggle, and profound gratitude to the people who have undergone it and managed to share the joy they’ve found within themselves…
As you might imagine if you’ve been following the New Joy of Jell-O Project for a while, I was really looking forward to posting the last recipe in the book today. Alas, it is not to be.
Yea, though I did dutifully avail myself of the flu shot provided to me gratis by MIT back in October, it appears that I have nevertheless succumbed to the flu. Or a flu, it might be more accurate to say. It started innocently enough at the beginning of the week with an inconvenient amount of nose-blowing, progressed to a fully-stuffed head and a fever, and in the last day or so has worked it’s way into my lungs. Science has, for once, let me down.
Meanwhile, we’re enjoying (that’s sarcasm – don’t blink or you’ll miss it) what must be a record cold streak here in the northeast U.S., with temperatures topping out in the teens (Fahrenheit) and heading down into single digits with wind chill below zero. It started about the same time I was getting sick (how convenient) and is expected to go on for another week or so from, like, now. Unfortunately, the heating system at Freak Mountain has trouble coping with cold like this.
When I started to write this, both upstairs and downstairs were below 60℉, and I was thumbing this post out on my phone because Bryan was using the power cable from our wifi router to charge the battery in the thermostat downstairs, so I needed to use LTE to access WordPress. I found myself thinking of Sylvia Plath at the end.
Well, we’ve got the wifi back, and the furnace is sorted (for now), and it all just feels like such a fitting end for the long and arduous year that was 2017. I gladly invite 2017 to let the door hit its ass, multiple times, on the way out.
I’m hoping to get back to that last recipe in the coming week, if only because it involves using the oven and so will warm things up a bit.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…
Happy New Year!
A few days ago I heard on the news that the second-to-last Howard Johnson’s restaurant was about to close. My first reaction was – there are still Howard Johnson’s restaurants out there?
Howard Johnson’s got its start as a soda fountain in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1925, somewhat improbably expanded into a chain of restaurants during the Great Depression, and became a pioneer in American road food as the automobile became King of the 20th Century. For decades, families on road trips would see an iconic orange tiled roof and know that they could get a good sit-down meal with 28 flavors of ice cream to choose from for dessert. During the 1980s, the Howard Johnson’s brand was sold and passed from conglomerate to conglomerate, while interstate highway rest stops were taken over by fast food chains, and HoJo’s restaurants went on a steady decline. On September 6, 2016, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Bangor, ME will close, leaving only one restaurant in Lake George, NY to carry on the legacy.
My family seldom traveled, and most of the few trips we took were within Massachusetts (except for one summer week when the seven of us crammed ourselves into a neighbor’s tiny vacation cottage in New Hampshire) so I don’t really have any childhood memories of “road food”. My HoJo’s memories involve the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Times Square in New York City. I went there twice.
The first time was in the summer of 1977. Fellow older people and/or history buffs will recognize that as the summer when the New York City police were hunting down the serial killer known as Son of Sam. It was also a low point for NYC generally, but for some reason, my grandmother decided it would be neat for her and me to spend a couple of days there with a friend of hers and her friend’s granddaughter.
Actually, I enjoyed spending time with my grandmother, and it was a fun trip. I remember that we stayed at the Taft Hotel, which must have been this one in Times Square. The centerpiece of the trip was seeing the original Broadway production of Annie (with Andrea McArdle in the title role), and we also did a bit of sight-seeing, going up to the observatory in the Empire State Building and visiting the Statue of Liberty (although we didn’t go up to the crown, presumably due to the lack of elevators). I remember that I had never been on a train before so I really wanted to ride the subway, but my grandmother refused, insisting that it was too dangerous.
Since it was almost 40 years ago, my memories of the trip are hazy, but one of the few clear memories I have is of having supper at the Howard Johnson’s. In particular, I remember the part where I ordered dessert. I wanted ice cream, and growing up in the Friendly’s company town, I naturally assumed that all other restaurants only had a few flavors of ice cream – chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and maybe one or two others. Unaware that HoJo’s were famous for their 28 flavors, I asked the waitress what they had, and she patiently starting going down the list, from memory. (Belately, I am impressed.) Luckily, peppermint stick was near the top, and since that was my favorite, I stopped her there.
Another thing I remember is almost getting hit by a cab. It was the first time, but not the last.
The second time I went to the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square was while Bryan and I were living in Brooklyn. We were living in a tiny, noisy, leaky, roach-infested shithole of an apartment in a still-gentrifying part of Park Slope, saving up to get out, and trying to make the best of our New York experience in whatever ways we could. It was probably late 2004 or early 2005 when we heard that the restaurant, one of the last old-school holdouts in the shiny new post-Guiliani Times Square, would be closing, and we decided that we had to go.
It looked as though it hadn’t changed since it opened in 1959, and it probably hadn’t, all dark wood paneling and burnt-orange vinyl. Almost certainly it was just the same as when I went there with my grandmother in 1977. We had the signature clam strips, and ice cream for dessert. Mine was peppermint stick.
In late April 2005, the Times Square Howard Johnson’s closed.
It’s not that I want them back so much, but it’s important to know that these things existed. When we forget history we’re doomed to repeat it, yes, but it’s useful to remember where we’ve been as we move on to where we’re going. Also, it’s good to be aware of our place in history. Each of us is part of a bigger picture, a picture that includes David Berkowitz and clam strips…
I’ve been taking a “staycation” this week, just hanging around the house, getting a few useful things done, and listening to my favorite NPR station. WBUR airs a lot of talk programming that I like to listen to while I do housework, and this week I’m hearing programs that are oddly relevant to me. Yesterday, it was an hour of “On Point” about the history of exhaustion. On Monday on “Fresh Air”, Terry Gross interviewed a couple who’ve written a book about food during the Great Depression.
As I listened to Gross’s guests describe the thrifty, filling, and bland cuisine promoted by the U.S. government during the Depression, I was struck by the similarity of what they were describing to the recipes I’ve been making during the course of the Project. At some point, the proverbial light bulb clicked on in my head, and I realized that The New Joys of Jell-O and its ilk are direct descendants of Depression-era cuisine.
I’ve made a number of wise-cracks about General Foods food scientists, possibly on drugs, trying to screw around with the average American housewife by coming up with bizarre recipes containing Jell-O. I feel a little bad about that now. I haven’t read A Square Meal… yet (just downloaded it from Amazon), but based on what I’ve heard so far, my theory is that even as late as the 1970s our cuisine was heavily informed by Depression-era notions about food.
To illustrate, my grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression, and having grown up poor in a large family, she would have been particularly receptive to a style of cooking that was inexpensive, filling, and held to be nutritious by modern food scientists. Naturally she would have passed that along to my mother, and my mother, who had a fairly large family of her own to feed during the economically troubled 1970s, would have seen no reason to deviate from the old cookbook. I mostly accepted that style of cooking until I started watching Julia Child, who offered a look at how cooking could be different, and when I went to university I had greater freedom and opportunity to explore other cuisines.
Researching this further, I found this Serious Eats article about the history of the Jell-O salad. My theory is pretty good, but fails to account for WWII, when the food science that had been touted as a solution to hunger during the Depression was repurposed to feed the troops. After the war, the food processing industry was disinclined to scale back to earlier peacetime levels, so it geared up to (create, and then) meet the needs of American housewives. That had a lot to do with perpetuating that style of cooking, but I suspect it was an easier sell to people who had grown accustomed to eating that sort of food during the Depression. Otherwise, you have to wonder whether the food processing industry would have dared to foist some of their weird, bland creations on the nation.
As it turns out, the blandness and the weirdness of the recipes developed during the Depression were both intentional. For one thing, it was believed that spicy foods were stimulants along the lines of caffeine, alcohol, and harder drugs. For another, from a policy standpoint, the home economists developing this way of cooking didn’t expect people to enjoy it; the idea was to make sure that while poor people should feel full and nourished, they should also want to go out and get jobs so that they could afford better food. Perhaps the least palatable rationale from our modern standpoint, Depression-era cuisine purposely eschewed immigrant cuisines because they had no basis in food science and were “un-American”.
When I heard that, I was reminded of my parents’ general aversion to ethnic food. Not only was ethnic food not prepared in our home (unless it was, say, La Choy canned “Chinese” food, or Ortega prepackaged “Mexican”), but also, we never went out for it. When we went out to eat, it was to Mr. Steak or to Abdow’s Big Boy. In particular, we avoided Chinese restaurants, because my father claimed that one time, when doing a plumbing job at a Chinese restaurant, he’d seen workers chopping food on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor. (Not that my father wasn’t racist, but something I witnessed on my first trip to San Francisco in 1993 lends credence to his story.) My father also claimed that his stomach was too sensitive for spicy food (but somehow it didn’t have trouble with the scotch-rocks he drank every night after work).
Now I’m going to have to be mindful of this history as I proceed with the Project. The recipes may be weird and sometimes scary, and the photos may be rather grotesque and hilarious, but many of these recipes were originated by people who were trying to do their best, with the best information they had available to them, at a desperately difficult time. In the early days of food science, this kind of cooking was considered “high tech”. Take a moment to think about how attached we, in this truly modern era, have become to our own tech…
In a development that’s making Bryan none too happy, I’ve found myself starting to think in terms of familiar dishes that can be remade with Jell-O. Case in point, as I mentioned last week, my grandmother’s ambrosia. In case you’re interested, here’s my recipe:
- 1 3-oz. package Island Pineapple flavor Jell-O
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 11-oz. can mandarin oranges, drained
- 1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
- 3/4 cup juice from canned fruit
- 1 cup flaked coconut
- 8 oz. sour cream
- approx. half a 10-oz package white mini-marshmallows
- maraschino cherries for garnish, if desired
Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water, add reserved juice. Chill over ice water bath until slightly thickened. Stir/whisk in sour cream. Continue chilling/thickening. While the Jell-O is thickening, lubricate a 6-cup mold; place cherries in bottom of mold. When Jell-O is thickened, fold in oranges, pineapple, coconut and marshmallows. Spoon carefully into mold, trying not to shove cherries around. (Good luck with that.) Refrigerate until set, at least four hours, or overnight. Unmold onto serving platter. There is no need to garnish further.
My grandmother made ambrosia (also known as ambrosia salad, or five-cup salad) for Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was always the five basic ingredients – sour cream, crushed pineapple, mandarin oranges, flaked coconut, and miniature marshmallows. She had a particular holiday-themed plastic dish that she used for serving it that had fluted sides, and for decoration she would place a maraschino cherry in each curve around the side and one in the center.
I know that there are a lot of variations on the recipe, and I got curious and did a bit of research. I discovered that I’m not the first person to do a Jell-O version, although the other ones I found tend to use orange Jell-O and omit the marshmallows. I found a couple of instances of people putting prepared Jell-O in ambrosia, such as this story from NPR, which I find frankly bizarre. The other instance – well, watch if you dare…
There are several options for the creamy dressing besides sour cream. I’ve seen a lot of recipes that call for Cool Whip, which is anathema as far as I’m concerned, but it seems to be very popular, either by itself or combined with some other creamy ingredient. Some recipes call for real whipped cream, which should be fine, though I suspect that would make the dish too sweet for my taste. Another variation is thinned and beaten cream cheese, often folded into whipped cream or Cool Whip. Health-conscious cooks use yogurt. Mayonnaise is mentioned, but rarely. I even found a recipe that omits the coconut and marshmallows but includes cottage cheese – one of those things that, once seen, cannot be unseen.
Of course, the greatest variety is in the fruit. While citrus and coconut are traditional, some people use canned fruit cocktail (ick), bananas, strawberries, dates, and much more. The fruit can be fresh, frozen, canned, or some combination thereof – whatever the cook likes and/or has on hand. Nuts are sometimes added as well, usually pecans or almonds.
Heading further down the rabbit hole, I looked into the history (or perhaps a better term would be “evolution”) of ambrosia. This article lays it out pretty well (and is an enjoyable read if you have a few minutes), but I’ll summarize: Ambrosia got its start as a citrus fruit salad in the American South, where such fruits are native, not long after the end of the Civil War. The completion of the trans-continental railroad made it possible to include coconut, which was shipped to San Francisco from Hawaii. At that time, it was a simple layering of fruits, coconut, and sugar, sometimes dressed with fruit juice or sherry. Over time, this came to be served as a holiday treat, sometimes with cake and whipped cream. Starting in the 1920s, promotional recipes for a product called Whitman’s Marshmallow Whip (a sort of powdered marshmallow creme mix) introduced a new variation on the traditional fruit salad, and the creamy version was born. At about the same time, confectioners were inventing marshmallow candies that could be made in discrete pieces (the marshmallows we know today), and these were quickly incorporated into ambrosia recipes. The gelatin variation first made its appearance in 1950. By the time I was enjoying my grandmother’s ambrosia as a kid in the 1970s, its variants were legion.
What’s kind of strange and interesting to me is that, although all of my general-purpose cookbooks include some sort of ambrosia recipe, ambrosia is considered to be primarily a Southern dish. It’s not often that I encounter someone up here in Yankeeland who grew up with ambrosia as a traditional holiday dish. In fact, I’ve encountered a good amount of snobbery about it. (For example, one Christmas at the home of one of Bryan’s mother’s sisters, her in-laws brought a large bowl of ambrosia salad, which was regarded with the ol’ hairy eyeball by Bryan’s mother’s family.) The thing is, I don’t have any Southern roots. My maternal ancestors came to Massachusetts from France with a generations-long stopover in Canada along the way. So how did both ambrosia and tourtières become part of the family holiday menu? My grandmother passed away some 20 years ago, so I guess this will have to remain a mystery.
Probably I will never have more than a tenuous grasp on the “white trash” in my background, but I can’t bring myself to disavow it, even though it’s not really something that I share with most of the people I know now, here in my life in Nerdvana. Besides, there’s no point being embarrassed or ashamed about something you can’t control. It’s one of those odd things that make me unique.
Anyway, to no one’s surprise, the Festive Ambrosia Mold turned out fine. The Jell-O simply gave shape and hold to a dish that would otherwise have been formlessly heaped in a bowl (preferably a fancy glass one, according to most of the videos I watched.).There are only a couple of small tweaks I might make. One, despite the pineapple flavor Jell-O, I don’t think there was quite enough crushed pineapple in this. Two, I really should have taken all the cherries in the jar and lined them up around the bottom of the ring mold, instead of trying to make a pattern based on the fluting. Better still, if I had used a mold with little round indentations in which the cherries could have sat. Maybe halve some cherries and place them on top of the Jell-O after it was unmolded? I suppose I could have cut up the cherries and incorporated them into the mixture, but my grandmother never did that. I think she would have approved of Festive Ambrosia Mold.
So a while ago I was googling Jell-O (don’t ask) and stumbled upon a factoid – July 12 is National Eat Your Jell-O Day. I noted it in my calendar and resumed googling. (Really, don’t ask.)
Procrastinator that I am, I left doing something about it until the last possible moment, and yesterday after work as I researched National Eat Your Jell-O Day, I discovered that the reason it’s on July 12 is that July 12 is Bill Cosby’s birthday.
I think we’d all rather not make that association anymore. Still, if you google “National Eat Your Jell-O Day”, it’s in all the calendars for July 12, and we can’t just go around changing all the calendars on the internet now, can we?
I say we just re-claim this holiday, treat the day as though it were based on, say, the Mayan calendar. (Let’s not make it a lunar holiday, though. Then it’ll keep moving around and we’ll never be able to keep track of it.) Let’s make it all about the Jell-O, because that’s what’s important.
So in honor of National Eat Your Jell-O Day, I decided to put up a little New Joy of Jell-O retrospective. Jell-O has changed my life in some weird and interesting ways.
For those of you who haven’t read the “About the Project” page, I started this blog on a dare. I had been grumbling at length to Bryan about Julie Powell’s success with her Julie/Julia Project blog after we saw the movie Julie and Julia. (Okay, I admit it, I was jealous.) Thinking he’d get me to shut up about it, when we got home he said I should start my own though-cooking blog, and he pulled The New Joys of Jell-O from our bookcase full of cookbooks and handed it to me.
I don’t think he really thought I’d do it. Considering that by that point he’d known me for over twenty years and married me twice, you’d think he would’ve known better.
I mean, it didn’t seem like it would be that hard. Depending on how you count, there’s a little over a hundred recipes in the book. And it’s Jell-O, ferchrissakes! Cafeteria food! Sick-day food! It’s the easiest bloody dessert to make in the world after cut-up fruit!
It turned out that two Jell-O dishes per week, plus the photography and writing (in addition to work, fitness activities, and other life things) was a bit much. Strange as it sounds, I got burnt out on Jell-O.
Even stranger, though, was the way that the Project haunted me. For four years it haunted me, until some friends convinced me to restart it.
Even with a proper editorial calendar and careful pacing, it hasn’t been totally smooth going, but I finally feel like I’m on track to see this thing through to the end. I like that the New Joy of Jell-O Project gives my life a sort of weird, random purpose, and it feels good to be writing regularly, getting a little creative, and stretching a bit into visual arts.
I think I’m even getting to like Jell-O. I’m kind of looking forward to the next one, actually…
Happy National Eat Your Jell-O Day!