By Joshua Benton
SALT LAKE CITY – Olympic Host City isn’t the only important title Salt Lake City has won in the last few years. Just as valued in the hearts of many is its status as Jell-O Capital of America.
“Out on the East Coast, there are a lot of closet Jell-O eaters,” said Lynne Belluscio, director of the Jell-O Museum in Le Roy, N.Y. “In Utah, they’re very upfront about it.”
Salt Lake City residents eat twice as much Jell-O per capita than the average American. So when Belluscio’s museum put together a traveling exhibit touting Jell-O history – complete with recorded narration from long-time spokescomic Bill Cosby – picking its first stop wasn’t difficult.
The exhibit, downtown at the ZCMI Mall – that’s Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, an only-in-Utah name – has been drawing crowds since opening on Feb. 6.
“We love our Jell-O,” said Janice Brown of Salt Lake City, who said she helped teach her children to read by using alphabet-shaped Jell-O molds. “It’s quick and it’s easy, and kids want to eat it.”
Just as Salt Lake City had to battle against other cities to win these Games, its Jell-O title has not gone unchallenged. In 1999, word came down from Jell-O HQ that increased Farm Belt sales had pushed Des Moines to the No. 1 spot.
The city responded. Two Brigham Young University students launched a campaign to take back the title. Gov. Michael Levitt proclaimed an annual Jell-O Week, which concluded Saturday. And state legislators, bravely putting aside budget, crime and education issues for a moment, passed a resolution declaring Jell-O the official state snack food. Bill Cosby himself appeared at the state capitol to lobby on gelatin’s behalf.
All the hard work paid off, and Salt Lake City has shoved the Iowa usurpers back to second place. (Oklahoma City is third.)
Exactly why Jell-O has so grabbed Utah by the throat is a point of discussion. Belluscio posits the strong familial bonds of the Mormons as a reason. In many families, Sunday meant Jell-O as much as it meant church. “If you ask people where they get their Jell-O recipes from, it’s always their mother or their grandmother,” she said. “These are long-standing family traditions.”
Some say Jell-O is a convenient dessert to fix for large Mormon families, or that it’s easy to make for the regular church potluck dinners.
Still others suggest that Jell-O and other desserts have filled the vice void given over elsewhere to alcohol or coffee, neither of which is allowed in the diets of observant Mormons.
“If you have a party, you don’t serve wine, so you have 10 desserts instead,” said Pam Hicks of Provo, whose daughter Rachel still has fond memories of 1993, when watermelon flavor was introduced.
Belluscio also noted that Utahns are more “unabashedly creative” with gelatin than folks most other places, adding cottage cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream and other ingredients that can blur the line between Jell-O-as-dessert and Jell-O-as-salad.
Utah’s Jell-O fame has crossed over into the market for Olympic pins, which are always a hot trading item at any Games. Several green Jell-O-themed pins have been released. Those from the first set made have boomed in value from $7.50 to a dot-com-like $150.
“You can’t find anyone willing to trade their green Jell-O pins,” said Jean-Paul Beland, a pin enthusiast from Montreal hawking his duplicates downtown. “Every day people ask for them. I’ve got four, but I’m keeping them all for my collection. They’re not for sale.”
Utah residents are quick to point out green Jell-O isn’t the only highlight of local cuisine. There’s fry sauce, a ketchup-pickle juice-mayo combo invented by a local drive-in in the 1940s. And don’t forget funeral potatoes, a casserole of hash browns, corn flakes and sour cream customarily served after someone dies.
But no other food seems as deeply ingrained into Utah culture as the noble gelatin blob. “We’re Jell-O people,” James said. “When someone’s sick, you take them Jell-O. It’s just what you do.”