I met my first Mormon friend on the California Zephyr, America’s longest passenger train. Glenn boarded in Salt Lake City, on his way to San Francisco. I had been travelling on the same train since Chicago. Railways make strangers talk to each other. By the time we parted ways, he had introduced me to a mysterious story of demographics, bunkers, advertising campaigns and childhood memories. This rabbit hole was longer than the Zephyr - and it was made of Jell-O.
When I bought my ticket, I assumed it included access to the dining car. As we chugged through the Midwest, a conductor blocked my way with an apologetic smile. Apparently this was a common mistake - only premium ticket ($900) holders would be fed. I explained that I would be on the train for 51 hours. He smiled again, and introduced me to three other people who had made the same error. It was unclear whether we were expected to become friends, or draw lots for who would be eaten first.
We decided to forage instead. An on-board shop offered bad coffee and aggressively priced cereal bars. A more experienced passanger shared a bunch of bananas, explaining they had made the same mistake in their youth. 1,608 miles later, a group identity had solidified. We watched a downloaded copy of Snowpiercer on the banana donor’s laptop - she had guessed the wifi would not work. Coloradan peaks rolled into the blank basin of Utah, as empty coffee cups stacked up beside our window.
The California Zephyr stops in Salt Lake City for 15 minutes. Luckily, a local pizzeria could smell desperation over the phone handed dinner over the ticket barrier. Glenn took a seat near our group and serenely declined a slice. He had just eaten - besides, we looked like we needed it. We believed him. He also said that we had picked a good pizza spot - this was true. Then we asked him if there was a local dish we should have ordered instead. He claimed that Salt Lake City didn’t have any specialities. Surely a state capital, hosting 200,000 inhabitants in the middle of a desert, had come up with something distinctive to eat? Glenn said no. We did not believe that. His honest reputation was on wobbly ground
The longest train ride in America eventually came to an end, and I still didn't believe Glenn. Thankfully he was staying in my hostel, so the interrogation could continue. We went out to find the invention which fills San Francisco with pride: Mission-style burritos. These combine Mexican food with the soggiest dairy excess of the USA. Ours cost $15 each. You don’t need to like local food, to know that it is local food. Glenn finally cracked, as we were cleaning sour cream from our elbows. That was when I found out that Mormons eat a surprising amount of Jell-O. He couldn’t explain where this habit came from, but he did show me the lime-green cubes in his suitcase. The Book of Mormon does not mention gelatinised desserts. In fact, Glenn assured me that I would not find answers in any religious text. His choice of words surprised us both.
Once he recovered, he described the centrality of Jell-O in food culture he was raised in. This raised more questions than it answered. It had been several years since I had eaten jelly, or thought about jelly. On reflection, it is quite tasty. Bland agreeableness is part of the mystery, deflecting questions with a wobbly shrug. Why was there a successful 2001 State Resolution for Jell-O Recognition? Why, every February, does Salt Lake City celebrate Jell-O Appreciation Week? What was going on?
Bunkers manifest the anxieties of the people who build them. They reflect a lack of confidence in the status quo: a sense that everything could break down quickly. At the same time, it only makes sense to build a bunker when you have enough resources squirrelled away to outlast a disaster. The earliest cities were little more than holes in the ground filled with food, straddling the transition from nomadism to agriculture. Our species learnt how to farm, then started to dig.
Dr Matthew Bowman’s research links modern Mormon demographics with their violent expulsion from Illinois, in the nascent United States of America. Fleeing along the line which would lter be trced by the Chicago to California train, they found naturally defensible territory at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. Their chosen spot became Salt Lake City. During the Great Depression, the Church officially recommended that its followers keep a store of non-perishable food in their home. Since then, they have stipulated how long (currently three months) a home should be able to manage self-reliance. In Salt Lake City, households store their food in fortified basements, a built form which embodies an emphasis on self-sufficiency. As Bradley Garrett uncovers (in a 2020 anthropology of “social contract proof architecture”) bunkers are more common in Utah than anywhere else in the world.
This peculiar blend of place, shelter and food culture was a lifeline in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, but above all in Utah, Mormons distributed meals while supermarkets were gutted by panic buying. NPR, an American radio network, investigated how religious beliefs shaped a state of disaster readiness. As part of the series, they interviewed Mormon families from Salt Lake City. Their young daughter gives a tour of the bunker: Jell-O is the first thing she points out.
GAME, SET, MATCH
It makes sense that people who prioritise self-sufficiency and live in the middle of a desert would gravitate towards high shelf life foods. But why this food in particular and not, for instance, dried beans or beef jerky? Christy Spackman is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, and has tried to answer the question of why Mormons fell in love with Jell-O. She proposes a different framing: why did the rest of America fall out of love with it?
In the 19th century, making gelatinised desserts required powdered animal hooves, ice and hours of skilled labour. All of these were prohibitively expensive for the average family. Jelly was a status symbol, imported from classical French cuisine. Some dessert recipes crossed the Atlantic e.g. Les Gelées à la Muscovite combined citrus, cinnamon and boiled calves feet. However, jelly was overwhelmingly savoury and elaborate suspensions of meat formed the centrepiece of upper-class American tables. In 1923, Jell-O made a brief cameo in the cinematic adaptation of The Ten Commandments, standing in as the perfect medium for parting the Red Sea. On the whole, it was a food associated with a socio-economic group rather than a particular religious community.
“at once succulent, limpid and just sufficiently viscous
to allow of it being turned out of a mould without breaking.”
Escoffier, A Guide to Modern Cookery
The 1950’s consumer boom transformed everything. As the country emerged from World War II, middle class families could suddenly afford refrigerators. General Foods perfected the formula for shelf-stable gelatine cubes, to dissolve in hot water from new electric kettles. Advances in thermoplastics produced a multitude of moulds, at a fraction of the price of brass used in wealthy kitchens. Jell-O could be produced in any shape, for any number of people, at top speed. Since World War II, millions of women had entered professional work while retaining full responsibility for domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning. Through the latter half of the 20th Century, Jell-O was heavily marketed to young working mothers, and sales boomed.
Dr Jacqueline Thursby is a professor at Brigham Young University (named after the second president of the Mormon Church). Her research traces the labour of Mormon housewives, expected to regularly feed congregations and extended families. Most women also volunteer for their local Relief Society, catering for funerals, the elderly and unwell. In the 1950’s, church leaders deliberately shifted away from a rejection of mainstream American culture. After decades of careful isolation, Mormonism began to assimilate with the consumption habits of postwar USA. An age of abundance had begun and the Great Depression was history. Jell-O matched the moment, offering a solution for feeding large groups on a budget. By 1997, Salt Lake City led the nation in per-capita consumption. Mormons still stockpiled food in bunkers.
By the turn of the millennium family sizes and home sizes were shrinking. Dining trends shifted away from set-piece meals, while a new wave of marketing campaigns began to associate health with fresh food. Jell-O, formally an elite culinary technique, was consigned to nostalgia (alongside Spam and other heavily processed post war classics). However, Mormons still have large families and a habit of domestic food storage. Jell-O has retained a critical mass in the food culture, anchored by thousands of well-stocked basements. Salt Lake City began to eat differently from America, thanks to the cultural rhythms of its largest demographic. Mormons didn’t invent Jell-O, but they left it on the table long enough to claim it as their own.
A commemorative pin given to athletes and diplomats at the 2002 Winter Olympics
After a few weeks after Glenn showed me Jell-O in his suitcase, a story had emerged from the well-stocked bunkers of Salt Lake City. As I unravelled this food culture, I started to wonder why it had captured my imagination so intensely. Dr Spackman urges against the exoticisation of Mormon diets, whose avoidance of some everyday goods (e.g. coffee) has long triggered derision and suspicion. Instead, she urges focus on how the habits of millions of people reflects social factors - factors which also affect non-Mormon lives.
Following this advice, I started to notice a sense of familiarity. This wasn’t just a story about Glenn and the 1950’s-inflected food culture of Salt Lake City. I could feel jelly wobbling at the edge of my own childhood memories - and it had the faint smell of a dusty church hall.
I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Compared to their neighbours in the UK and Ireland, people here go to church more often. A bewildering variety of Christian faith groups gather for worship each week in Belfast. All of these religious services are followed by an activity familiar to Mormons on the other side of the world: eating cheap food, prepared in bulk by women who work for free. My family didn’t attend any one church regularly, but my childhood was still infused with various rituals and flavours. Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals. Ham rolls, melon balls and milk for your coffee. And at the end of every table, paper bowls of red jelly.
During primary school, jelly was the uncontroversial highlight of Friday lunches and birthday parties. As a sulking teenager, enduring hours of small talk after a solemn service, things were more complicated. I didn’t really understand the conversation, or the ceremony. I did understand that the jelly was intended as finger food for children. It had been a lifetime since my age had been measured in single digits - I even drank coffee now! On the other hand, the adults were now oblivious slalom poles, ignoring the food table and their sugar-rushed children. I didn’t really enjoy the taste of coffee. Guiltily, greedily, always on a Sunday, I ate the jelly.
Railways have a way of making strangers talk to each other. The California Zephyr taught me a few things in the way to San Francisco. Firstly, the cheap tickets don't include food. More importantly, I learnt how very different places can end up combining the same ingredients: formal religions, gendered workloads and community gatherings of unknown size. The moulds might be different, but the same wobbly echo of the 1950's gets served.
However you are celebrating Jell-O week in 2023, I hope you have a good one.
PS. My thanks to Dave Morris and my family, who reviewed versions of this article. All of them grew up around the similar tables kitchens in Northern Ireland. They were extremely helpful, without necessarily endorsing everything written above. When they sent feedback, it came with their own memories of "sticking fruit into jelly at family events" and baking Fifteens, a hyperlocal, hyperglycemic snack that would take another blog post to explain.
PPS. As always, Paula was the patient editor for my most confused drafts. She didn't eat much jelly growing up.
PPPS. "Glenn" isn't his real name. Thanks Glenn.