“I predict that we are on the threshold of a new aspic-forward aesthetic,” writes the food historian and University of the Pacific professor Ken Albala in The Great Gelatin Revival, out January 10 from University of Illinois Press. Though Albala finished writing the book before the pandemic, he encountered those now-common publishing delays. Reading his words in 2023, as jelly jiggles its way back into American affection, Albala’s prediction feels more like a manifestation.
No doubt, aspics — those vintage delicacies studded with vegetables and congealed meats — remain niche, but jelly? Jelly is having a moment. Shiny, colorful jellies were front and center in holiday ads for Bombas and the Marc Jacobs Daisy fragrance. The wobbling work of Nünchi, the LA-based jelly cake art project led by Lexie Park, has appeared alongside the biggest names: brands like Nike, Skims, Hendrick’s Gin, Bottega Veneta, Apple, and even singer Olivia Rodrigo. Moving beyond the aesthetic, Epicurious and the New York Times attempted to actually put jellies back on holiday tables, and grown-up Jell-O shots constituted one of last year’s biggest drink trends, according to Punch. Looking ahead, a soon-to-be-launched brand called Oddball promises “plant-based jelly snacks with 2 ingredients only.”
This gelatin revival is long in the works, at least in the West. Since 2007, the British duo Sam Bompas and Harry Parr have spearheaded the niche of elaborate and immersive jelly art, despite receiving early feedback that artisanal jelly was “ludicrous.” Also influential is the Facebook group Show Me Your Aspics, started in 2016; today, that group has 46,000 members. (The offshoot Facebook group Aspics with threatening auras offers photos of grotesque gelatins, like hot dogs suspended in jellied hot dog water).
Around 2019, with Show Me Your Aspics as inspiration, Albala started making and posting creations like a jelly lobster, jellied pho tartare, jelly with lutefisk and clams in an abalone shell, and a relatively tame spiced wine jelly, eventually becoming an “aspic influencer,” as Salon once put it. The Great Gelatin Revival is a mix of recipes from Albala’s kitchen experiments and historical exploration of gelatin in American kitchens and imaginations. “Periods that embrace the jiggle are always followed by periods of disgust sometimes so intense and visceral that entire generations lose the skill to make them,” Albala writes. Ultimately, Albala unpacks our tenuous relationship to jelly, while providing plenty of inspiration to play with the mind-bending food.
I sat down with Albala over Zoom to talk about why jelly is on the come-up, and why more of us might reconsider all things jiggly.
Eater: You write that you don’t choose book topics but that they choose you. What was your relationship to jelly like before you wrote this book?
Ken Albala: I didn’t like it, for one. [laughs] My mother made it when I was young. My parents were on Weight Watchers and they made this parfait that was lots of different colors, Cool Whip with Jell-O, just awful. I told my mother I figured out where Jell-O comes from — that it comes from calves’ feet — and I wasn’t gonna eat it anymore. That got me out of it.
I didn’t like it until a friend dared me to look at Show Me Your Aspics. I got sucked into it and I started making Jell-O here and there and realized that I was doing it every day. Some of them were good, some were not. I thought I might as well just get a book out of this.
In the book, you identify a cycle of jelly revulsion and fascination, and how this reflects how we, as a society, feel about technology and tradition. What do you think the current “aspic-forward aesthetic” says about where we’re at when it comes to tradition and technology, and what has brought us to this point?
On the one hand, I think people are kind of sick of hipster pickles and local and traditional and all this stuff that we’ve been really obsessed with for the past 20 years. I think that we’re beginning to look at the problems in the world, environmental ones especially, and look to science to solve those. The fact of an Impossible Burger — and lab-grown meat is going to happen very soon — I think is an indication that people have other priorities now and they’re really not as distrustful of science as they used to be, or that tech-forward food is something that that doesn’t really bug this next generation of people.
Eating animal collagen is one of those things that usually aligns with periods in history that are very science-forward and very trustful of science; there are other periods that are not. You think of the late ’60s-early ’70s, and the hippie generation — that’s when Jell-O begins to take its precipitous downfall, because people don’t want artificial colors and flavors. I predict that because of the way things have gone for the past 20 years, that we’re going to be back in a period that is not just pro-science and pro-artificially made food, but I think Jell-O is going to come back too, in a weird way.
On that note, I’ve been seeing jelly a lot more as an aesthetic statement, like in fashion ads. Aside from the ideological changes, why do you think people are now pushing jelly in these usages that aren’t really about the eating or the ingredients?
Because it’s weird to start with. It’s an unusual texture, color, and flavors that you really don’t find in nature. It’s something that is totally invented. Up until now, it’s really been a kitsch thing. You know, it’s camp — you do it because it’s so silly and strange. I think people just want to play with food; Jell-O seems pretty easy to make something exciting and interesting.
At least for me, I find jelly really interesting because it skirts all of these boundaries. It’s delicious, but it’s also disgusting. It looks inedible, but it is edible.
I think that Jell-O, in a way, can be terrifying and delicious at the same time. There’s a little discussion in the book about the sublime: things that are really scary, but they kind of attract you anyway. It’s things that are in the liminal space between what’s acceptable and what’s really bizarre, and people find that fun from an aesthetic perspective.
In Asian cuisines, that QQ bounciness is really popular; people want it. But in the West, that is off-putting, and jelly is much more this gross-out thing. Why do you think that’s the case?
Well, I think texture has always frightened Western palates — things that are slimy or chewy. It’s just not part of our gastronomic history in the way that, in Asian cuisine, it’s always been there. Jell-O, gelatin — especially agar, which is vegetable-based — never went out of fashion in Asia. Even in Eastern Europe, they still make kholodets [a kind of aspic], and headcheese doesn’t bother them in the least; it’s totally ordinary, and it never went away.
By and large, I’m really writing about the West. I think that part of the reason that there’s been a rollercoaster ride in the West is because of the Jell-O brand. Jell-O was marketed as something everyone could do, and everyone did — and then they just said, “We don’t want this anymore.” The sales have just been disastrous since the era of Bill Cosby, really. They also started making Jell-O pudding and Jell-O pops and things that were not Jell-O anymore and started selling them to children, and I think Jell-O became infantilized.
For some really bizarre reason, it was in hospitals. I guess the idea was to get something in people that is not hard to chew or swallow, and that they will have pleasant associations with, but otherwise, Jell-O as hospital food makes absolutely no sense on Earth.
As you write, it’s associated with convalescence, but it also has all of these qualities that people don’t like — if I’m in a hospital, Jell-O is not the thing that reads like, “oh, this is great!” to me.
There’s this book called Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom. Her mother was one of the inheritors of the whole Jell-O fortune: hated it, never wanted to eat it, had this very bad association, the money was cursed. Really, really good story. Ironically, Rowbottom’s mother got cancer and ended up in the hospital. They gave her Jell-O as her last meal, like oh my god.
Aside from the history of our relationship with jelly, the book has a lot of recipes. What was the process of testing these recipes like?
In general, if you take a cup of alcohol and a tablespoon of gelatin, you can do anything with it. Add the flavors and whatever you want; it can be straight alcohol, it can be a cocktail, it could be wine or Madeira or port. If I had something weird in the fridge — baby octopus — I would just throw it in and say, Let’s see what happens. I didn’t give them away a lot, but at parties I always brought Jell-O, and I shared the recipes with people sometimes to test them out.
For some reason, on the Show Me Your Aspics page, they just decided that I was the best thing since sliced bread. They started calling me “Jiggle Daddy,” and I embraced it. I’d post something stupid and there’d be like, 1000 likes. They really encouraged me and gave me ideas and I don’t think it would have ever become a book had it not been for that group.
Was there a single most surprisingly delicious jelly that you’ve made, and on the other side of that, was there a single most revolting? You write, for example, about making a moose nose jelly.
I made it for a TV show; they came and wanted me to do this. One of my Facebook friends actually said, “I have a moose’s head in the freezer.” He sent it. That was not that great. I did it for a year, I did maybe 500 different Jell-Os and I got about 100 [successes] out of it, so that’s a pretty good batting average.
One I made which is just delightful: Imagine you’re taking a Boulevardier, which is my favorite cocktail. It’s bourbon, Campari, and vermouth. You make a cup of that or whatever and then add gelatin, and you take dried fruits like raisins (you can use dates and apricots), soak them in bourbon, add some nuts like pecans or walnuts. You make a jelly out of it, like a solid bar, and cut it into bits so it’s chewy and firm. It’s sort of like fruitcake and sort of like gummies; it’s great flavor and it gets you a little toasted.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.