When looking at mid-century cookbooks from the U.S., I thank my lucky stars that I was born after the age of aspic. Potluck dinners in the fifties saw tables groaning with wobbling monstrosities. Seemingly every dish was set in a gelatine mould: Ham in Aspic (because ham on its own isn’t slimy enough); salmon and cottage cheese set in gelatine, garnished with boiled eggs (why have three mushy textures when you can have four?); or perhaps tuna, onion and cream cheese, encased in lime jelly (a dish to kick your gag reflex into action). And apparently the Christmas Candle Salad was a normal thing to serve your family: vertical bananas thrust through red jellied stars, with mayonnaise dribbling down the shaft. This recipe comes from a book published in 1950, A Child’s First Cook Book. Sweet or perhaps a little unsavoury?
Surely, whoever invented this quivering terror must have been high. I can only imagine if this had been served up at a family shindig, it would have sent children running away in tears. It looks like it crawled straight out of Frankinstein’s lab: “It’s alive, it’s ALIVE!”
And then there’s this disturbing blob of misery that could only have been inspired by Pedigree Pal … though I’m not sure even a canine could consider this level of drama on a plate.
As the process of rendering collagen from animal bones and then clarifying was labour-intensive, time-consuming and requires refrigeration, historically jellies were one of the most expensive dishes you could ever have. Serving jellies at a banquet became a display of a monarch’s power.
Doctors and statisticians agree that people used to be a lot skinnier back in the 1950s. Perhaps this is because culinary mastery was all about creating a lavish feast for the eye, and nothing to do with taste: it takes exceptional skill to turn out a highly detailed jelly mould. But in an era where satellites were being launched into space, the first organs were being transplanted, and DNA’s double helix structure was discovered, why were dishes being gelatinised? One reason is that it was economical: unsightly leftovers could be stretched out by encasing them in gelatine. Its malleable texture coupled with its ability to stave off spoilage made gelatine a scientific wonder.
Now that the days of citrus, cheese and fish combinations encased in a trembling, gelatinous tomb are behind us, the general association with gelatine today is with Jelly Babies and paracetamol capsules. But unknowingly, we encounter gelatine in practically all areas of modern life including in biodegradable food films, money notes, photography, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Even winemakers use it to remove impurities. Gelatine is also used for a myriad of medical miracles, such as organ-simulation and as sealants for vascular prosthetic implants.
But where did the use of gelatine begin? Chemical and microbiological analyses carried out on samples taken from a cave near the Dead Sea clearly show that its inhabitants around 8000 years ago in the New Stone Age were able to produce collagen glue from animal tissues. Some 3000 years later, the Ancient Egyptians created a similar substance not only as adhesive but also to make broths and soups.
As the process of rendering collagen from animal bones and then clarifying was labour-intensive, time-consuming and requires refrigeration, historically jellies were one of the most expensive dishes you could ever have. Serving jellies at a banquet became a display of a monarch’s power. Although no Tudor moulds have survived, there are records of jellies moulded into the shape of castles and animals at Henry VIII's court.
In France, jellies date back to the 10th century when locals took to creating pastilles from their prolific fruit orchards, and the nobility and royalty were shovelling it by the cartload.
The apparently innocuous treat, Jelly Babies, have been enjoyed as a treat for over 150 years. In 1864 a jelly mould was created that, although meant to look like bears, looked like newborn infants. The treats were subsequently given the disturbing name, Unclaimed Babies, later rebranded Peace Babies (to mark the end of World War 1), and officially relaunched as Jelly Babies in 1953. While eating a Jelly Baby is really an act of pseudo-cannibalism, today images of jelly babies are used to raise awareness for type 1 diabetes for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, who sell especially packaged Jelly Babies during their annual “Jelly Baby Month” campaign.
After viewing the eye-watering images of dishes that look like they belong in a post-nuclear apocalypse shelter, it’s easy to see why jellies and aspics have fallen out of favour.
Sam Bompass and Harry Parr, however, are working their darndest to restore jelly to its culinary throne. Originally branding themselves as The Jellymongers, the duo were inspired to recreate the stuff that their mothers made them for their birthday parties. They have gone far beyond even the Victorian era—the apex of jelly moulds—using a background in architecture to create 3-D computer models, forming plastic moulds to create jiggling renditions of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Flinders Street Station and the Taj Mahal. Their projects have included working with gelatine on a monumental scale—including setting the SS Great Britain in 55,000 litres of lime green jelly and creating a vast glow-in-the-dark jelly installation for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
While the Jellymongers might have had limited success in reinstating jelly to its former ubiquitous glory, gelatine has made a massive comeback in a different form. With health-conscious experts driving a significant portion of the food industry, we have seen the heights of goji berries, bee pollen, cauliflower rice and kale chips. Now we see gelatine in the form of bone broth gaining celebrity status, with those on the Paleo diet chugging down the gelatinous liquid for breakfast. Pete Evans was called out by the Federal Health Department for writing a cookbook that recommends feeding infants bone broth as a baby formula, but for adults this ‘magical elixir’ may indicate a number of benefits including anti-inflammation, boosting immunity and supporting digestive health—though others say the evidence is scanty.
Meanwhile, many people are all too aware that gelatine is often used as a stabiliser or thickener in foods such as yoghurt, cheese, ice cream and margarine. Most gelatine is made from pigskin, bones and hoofs, therefore not catering to people following Islamic or Jewish dietary laws—and of course vegetarians. The Halal marketplace is emerging as one of the most lucrative arenas in the world, estimated to be around 80 billion US dollars—and making up around 20% of global trade in food products.
There are many vegan alternatives to gelatine including agar-agar, made from certain seaweeds and discovered in 1658 in Japan. These can be also used for food, research, fertilisers and cosmetics. Irish moss is touted by nutrition nerds for its health benefits – while also omitting the alluring ingredient of pig’s ears.
So whether you are a fan of the miracles made when combining gelatine with canned soup and frozen vegetables; biting off the head of an unsuspecting unclaimed (jelly) baby; sinking your spoon into a wobbling neon Sydney Opera House; feeling virtuous with a raw vegan Irish moss mousse; or you just fancy getting rid of a headache pronto, there is a place for gelatine in all our lives. Porcine cartilage or seaweed, gelatine is truly a wonder ingredient.
Words by Siana Einfeld