“Jell-o Girls”: Does family money make life better?

I’m going to be up front: I’ve never liked Jell-o very much.  I definitely would never eat any Jell-o with “pieces” in it, meaning no Jell-o salads of any kind.  And even then I didn’t like it when you would hit those weird slivers of Jell-o.  Did anyone else encounter that?  I did, and do, like Jell-o chocolate pudding.  I don’t eat it much, but thinking about it makes me want to go buy some.  And I miss pudding pops.  Why did they stop making those?

Either way, the shiny hunk of Jell-o on the cover of this book caught my eye, and I was somewhat intrigued by the story. I don’t think the author, Allie Rowbottom, really pulled off what she was going for…in fact, the analogy between the lives of Rowbottom, her mother, and grandmother and the Jell-o phenomenon is pretty forced, especially since their family sold the company before any of them really came on the scene, but either way, this book does have its moments.

  Jell-o Girls as a Book


The Jell-o Girls is an interesting hybrid of genres.  Mostly, it is a family memoir…except that it spans three generations.  The first generation, is the story of Midge, the author’s grandmother.  The second is Mary, the author’s mother, and the third is Allie’s own memoir. The Jell-o Girls is also a bit of a social history as all three of these women belong to the who built the Jell-o company, and sold it decades ago, and all three of them have trust fund money from it.  So the author also traces the evolution of the brand and how it has been marketed over the years, which is kind of interesting, especially with its early ties to the “domestic science” movement.

Shimer College, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shimer College, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


This book makes an enjoyable read, if you like memoir and social history, but it’s also flawed.


At the beginning of the book, I thought it was going to go somewhere that it didn’t, and after awhile I realized it’s because the family had sold their interest in Jell-o long before any of the people who appear in the book were born.  So, ok.  The family has money from Jell-o, but that’s it.  Obviously, money has brought them things, most especially, it seems, the opportunity to explore artistic pursuits without having to worry about putting food on the table.  That’s worth a lot. 


And yes, some bad things happen to all three women, especially Midge and Mary, who both get a pretty rare form of cancer. 


Perhaps my issue with this book is that Allie Rowbottom relies just a little too often on analogies comparing feminity and Jell-o.  If you’ve had your basic feminist theory courses, you’ve heard this stuff before.


Ironically, the section of this book I found the best was the part devoted to Mary, Rowbottom’s mother, who had drafted long sections of her own memoir that she died without publishing.  The sections devoted to her young adulthood and mental illness I found almost painful to read at times…but it a good way, if that makes sense. 



Jell-o and the Domestic Science Movement

I was definitely a bit bored by the whole “Jell-o is molded like women’s bodies are molded by society.” Yawn. I had those classes in graduate school too.

But the history of Jell-o, connected to the “domestic science” movement and post war modernization, is interesting. I can tell you, my mom never saw a convenience food she didn’t like, and we grew up on Campbell’s soup, Spam, Cool Whip, and Jell-o.

Also, consider that at one time, gelatin was something only wealthy people could afford, and far into the 20th century some people didn’t have reliable refrigeration.

Regardless, as I said, I wouldn’t even eat Jell-o with fruit in it, never mind some of the mind boggling things they put in it.

Just in case you thought I was kidding…vintage recipes. Click image for source.

The Jell-o Girls (and plenty of other sources) connect convenience foods with the idea of making homemaking a scientific and easily managed endeavor. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to try to make homemaking seem important…a nice home and good food is important…but I get the point that the idea was also to keep women from wanted to do other things.

On the other hand, I think Rowbottom is missing the fact that in earlier times, cooking was a pretty messy business. I think one reason my own mom liked convenience foods so much is because she didn’t have to mess around in the kitchen as much, and it was a lot less dirty and a lot less work. She grew up in a largish family during the Depression and the War, so I can see the attraction.

Let’s not forget that the “Jell-o Girls” would all have domestic help.

For the record, here are a couple of recipes I would eat. I never minded Jell-o with whip cream (read Cool Whip), and it seems like a good idea to mix it with cake, or anyway, fun.

If I could get past the idea of chunks in my Jell-o, I might be tempted to try the two recipes with Coca Cola and Diet Dr. Pepper. I might skip the pineapple.

What can I say? I’m a Southerner. A lot of Southerners don’t drink (a lot do, but there who don’t, and those who don’t, feel strongly about it), and we do think a little Co’cola can add to almost any dish when others would put in some wine or spirits.

There are a lot of different variations on the idea of putting your Jell-o in cake. Here’s one: Christmas Poke Cake

You’ll also see a lot of variations on colored layers. I know from being a kid in the 70’s that Jell-o isn’t that easy to manipulate free form…anyway, food that looks like it’s been handled a lot grosses me out. I tend to like using trifle dishes anyway because they are easy to make and they look good for company. This one is fun: Rainbow Trifle

It’s a Southern thing, and these are both probably good with a salty Virginia ham:

Coca-Cola Salad

Diet Dr. Pepper Salad

And finally, here’s a quick free read for you: The Golden Age of Jell-o from Business Insider

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