The perfect symbol of American Jewry is a red, white and blue jello mold.
Believe it or not, Jello holds a special place in North American Jewish cuisine. Whether you’ve enjoyed it for decades or were surprised to find it’s one of the foods Ms. Maisel is known for, Jewish cuisine is no stranger to the humble jiggly dish. In fact, the connection between Jello molds and American Jewish immigrants in the 1950s says a lot about our history in America.
What are Jello Molds?
Jello molds are shaped desserts made from flavored gelatin. They can be sweet, savory and are often layered with different foods hanging inside for dramatic effect.
What is the connection between Jews and Jello Molds?
Look in most retro American Jewish cookbooks, you’ll find at least one recipe for a gelatin-based mousse, mold, or “salads”. Don’t be fooled by the description, these must-haves have everything from fruit to pretzels and even coleslaw. My grandmother’s specialty was a jello dish made with layers of fruit jelly, graham crackers and whipped topping, sliced and served at parties as if it were our version of a tiramisu.
The process of making jelly is a long-standing way of preserving food in the days before refrigeration. Since the process of making collagen-based gelatin from animal bones was long, laborious, and expensive, it became a sign of luxury where foods like Aspic (a savory meat jelly) and Jello Molds have become a symbol of class and status.
The Jews used this preservation technique to make gefilte fish, where the collagen dissolved from the fish and turned into a gel, which helped preserve it and keep it edible on Shabbat. We prefer this modern approach to gefilte fish, but at least they had a good reason for all the jelly.
With the Industrial Revolution came the modern, quick and easy to use powdered gelatin we use today and the opportunity for jello molds to become the popular choice of the middle class in America. With an aggressive marketing campaign, Jello pushed and an “all-American” image while simultaneously targeting new Jewish immigrants with Jell-O-sponsored Yiddish radio programs and even a Yiddish cookbook.
Source: MJHNYC.org – Pages of Jell-O Recipes, 1924. Gift of Jonathan Herder. 2008.A.84.
In the 1910s and 1920s, Jell-O advertised to the Jewish population who dreamed of assimilating into American culture.
Is Jello Kosher? The answer might surprise you!
A great debate erupted in the Jewish community over the kosher status of Jell-O in these early days. While gelatin is made by boiling bones, hooves, and tissue, it is considered pareve (not meat) because it has changed so much in the manufacturing process that it no longer resembles animal. Today, there are all kinds of jello brands and products made from everything from fish bones to plant-based, vegan alternatives made with agar (a type of seaweed) and many brands selling kosher-certified gelatin.
I don’t have a jelly mold – what should I do?
If you don’t have a heirloom Jello mold to use, use a Bundt mold or even a mixing bowl! Be creative and prepare individual portions in wine glasses or ramekins.
Troubleshooting your jello molds
- Spray your mold with cooking spray before filling it.
- When layering, patience is key! Refrigerate until set, but not too firm. It should not stick to your finger to the touch, before adding the next layer.
- When adding the 2n/a3rdor fourth layer, make sure the jelly has begun to harden slightly.
- Be careful what fruit you add! Fruits like pineapple can inhibit jelly!
- If you have trouble getting it out of the mold, run it under hot water to help loosen it.
Get my red, white, and blue mold recipe here.