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Upstate, Where It Was First Made, Unwavering Devotion to Jell-O - New...

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May 4, 2008

Upstate, Where It Was First Made, Unwavering Devotion to Jell-O

By KEN BELSON

Le ROY, N.Y. -- Jell-O is as American as, well, Jell-O, a staple at generations of potluck dinners and fodder for students in cafeteria food fights. For some immigrants at Ellis Island, where it was served, it was their first taste of their new home. Carolyn Wyman, author of "Jell-O: A Biography," sees it as nothing less than a metaphor for the national character. "It is bright, brash, sweet, unsophisticated, lighthearted -- even lightweight," Ms. Wyman, a food critic, wrote in the 2001 book. Jell-O, she added, "is the food that most resembles a toy." Indeed, every year, more than 10,000 devotees flock to this sleepy bedroom community near Rochester to watch the gelatin wiggle. General Foods shut the Jell-O factory here in 1964, but Le Roy -- where a carpenter who spent his winters trying to develop herbal teas invented the stuff in 1897 -- remains devoted to the dessert. As with the relationships between Flint, Mich., and General Motors, or Buffalo and Bethlehem Steel, the company may have retreated, but the identity stuck. The Jell-O Gallery dominates the old building on East Main Street that houses the local historical society. The gallery is a must-see for fans curious about how the translucent, jiggly gelatin became a cornerstone of the modern American diet, as well as for people seeking a glimpse of New York's industrial past. There is an exhibit displaying advertisements over the years and another that shows the evolution of Jell-O's three-ounce package (the shape of which has not changed all that much). You can vote for your favorite flavor or watch Bill Cosby's popular Jell-O commercials. "Most little historical societies would give their eye teeth for a hook like we have," said Lynne J. Belluscio, the gallery's director. But Jell-O is not immune to controversy. Down the street from the makeshift museum, Paul Boylan, a lawyer, is weighing whether to beseech the United States Supreme Court in a battle over a $10 million trust left by Barbara Piel, a descendant of the family that built Jell-O into a national phenomenon. An appellate court ruled in March that Mr. Boylan's client, Elizabeth McNabb, a daughter of Ms. Piel's who was given up for adoption, had no right to a share of the money. Besides the Jell-O Gallery, there are plenty of similarly strange historical treasures scattered around upstate New York. The Original American Kazoo Company's museum in Eden, near Buffalo, and the Slate Museum in Granville, north of Albany, are also tributes to a time when the state was known for its manufacturing muscle and creativity. Then there is the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center in Jamestown, near Miss Ball's

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birthplace, which promises to "enrich the world through the healing powers of love and laughter." Here in Le Roy, the experience begins when visitors step off East Main Street onto the Jell-O Brick Road, a pathway where each stone is inscribed with the name of a former employee of the factory or a town notable. On the second floor of the historic schoolhouse, the Jell-O Gallery contains a showcase of a preserved sturgeon bladder and a calf's hoof, two of the less-appealing ingredients in gelatin. Around the corner is an impressive collection of molds, some made of tin and plastic, others that imprinted Jell-O with the logos of Canadian hockey teams. There are baseball cards that Jell-O issued in the 1960s and the Very Berry Barbie doll, which helped introduce a new flavor. Visitors come by the busload from all over the country -- Ms. Belluscio tracks their hometowns as they cast their votes for favorite flavor. Cherry, strawberry and raspberry are perennial favorites, but lime does well when the Mormons hold their annual Hill Cumorah festival in Palmyra, 50 miles away. Mormons, Ms. Belluscio said, are some of the most avid consumers of Jell-O. In 2001, the Utah Legislature declared Jell-O (no particular flavor) the official state snack; Mr. Cosby was on hand for the event. There are various theories about why Mormons are smitten with Jell-O, the simplest of which is that in a life bereft of tobacco, alcohol and caffeine, sugar is their guilty pleasure. And Jell-O powder is more than 80 percent sugar before the boiling water is added (though sugar-free Jell-O has been available since 1984). According to the gallery's exhibits, before Pearle B. Wait, the local carpenter who liked to experiment in the kitchen, invented Jell-O, gelatin desserts were time-consuming and expensive to make. A typical recipe involved soaking calves' feet and other animal parts to remove the hair and other detritus, and extracting the collagen. After the scum was removed, the remainder was boiled. The process was repeated for hours. Mr. Wait's genius was to democratize the dessert by turning the gelatin into flavored powder so that it could be reconstituted quickly and for just a few cents a serving. The name was his wife's brainstorm, inspired by Grain-O, which at the time was considered a healthful alternative to coffee. But success was not instant. Unable to turn his product into a hit, Mr. Wait sold the patent in 1899 to Orator F. Woodward for $450. Mr. Woodward, who already had a successful packaged-food business in Le Roy, dressed his salesmen in natty suits and told them to give free samples of Jell-O to homemakers -- a technique familiar to anyone who shops at Costco. The salesmen would then go to the nearby groceries and persuade the owners to stock the product, which originally came in four flavors -- strawberry, raspberry, lemon and orange. Jell-O sales soared. A year after Mr. Woodward's family sold Jell-O to the Postum Cereal Company in 1925, five million cases were being shipped each year, according to Ms. Wyman, the author. Postum eventually became General Foods, which later merged with Kraft, now Jell-O's owner. The company hired Norman Rockwell to illustrate early advertisements. Jell-O also sponsored Jack Benny's radio shows, starting in the 1930s. The Jell-O plant was one of the biggest employers in Le Roy, where workers prized the lifetime jobs, Ms. Belluscio said. Some townspeople are still angry that General Foods moved the Jell-O plant to Dover, Del.

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For out-of-towners, the gallery seems to set off memories of holiday dinners and food fights with siblings. Damian Kumor, a 23-year-old senior at the Rochester Institute of Technology who grew up near Akron, Ohio, has his favorite flavor (raspberry), shapes (Jigglers) and family stories. Jell-O cubes, he said, were a mainstay at Christmas. His grandmother put slices of lemons and limes in Jell-O, to mixed reviews. "How do you ruin Jell-O?" he said. "She did."

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