The Jell-O Years

(by Jennifer L. Thornburg)


Between the ages of nine and twelve, I tried about a million recipes using Jell-O. Most of them came from a rather slim volume titled The Joys of Jell-O. This was my bible. So often did I peruse its fascinating pages, I still remember the cover in startling detail: a single parfait glass filled with strawberries suspended in clear, red Jell-O, topped off with a generous dollop of fluffy white cream. A bright pink flower backgrounded this simple, elegant dessert.


The exigence for my multitudinous experiments with Jell-O was that we had several cases of it in our basement—strawberry, lime, orange, and lemon. I can still picture those smooth white boxes edged in blue, with the bold letters J-E-L-L-O shouting in red. Oh, how they made my heart beat faster with the thought of all that potential. I mean, what would I concoct this time? What fantastic colors and flavors could I combine to make a delicious and aesthetically pleasing dessert?


I would like to say that I cooked with my mom during these years, but that would not be true. She came home from work too tired to speak, and collapsed on the couch. While she lay there, exhausted from her menial labor job of sewing bandoliers for ammunitions out at the Glasgow Air Force Base, I decided to make dessert for the family. But I had to use ingredients we had on hand. And that was Jell-O.


I started with a simple mold, shaped like a fish, but that was child’s play. I soon graduated to desserts that required artistry and commitment. There was the tri-layered dessert, in which I layered Jell-O in a clear glass bowl, to showcase its beauty. The bottom layer quivered in ruby tones; the next layer a gradation of lighter pink formed by whipping the Jell-O until it was frothy; and the top layer was the bomb—palest pink achieved by whipping Dream Whip into the Jell-O until it looked like a cloud touched by the morning sun. The tactile experience of eating a spoonful of three distinct layers of Jell-O, with different colors and textures, was nothing less than gastronomic heaven.


When feeling frivolous, I’d make finger-Jell-O, using less water than the usual recipe and resulting in a firmer texture that could be cut in squares and picked up with one’s hands. Oh, those quivering cubes of color, so cool and flavorful as they slid down my parched throat on a hot July evening. But my magnum opus was the more complicated Rainbow Cake, made from five layers of whipped Jell-O. Black Raspberry, lemon, lime, orange, and strawberry flavors made a veritable rainbow of colors. Chilling the Jell-O until thick but not completely set, whipping it to the right consistency (airy but not too airy), spooning into a springform pan, chilling before the next layer—this took patience. I built the layers, one at a time, and when it was set, took the outer rim off the pan, then coated the whole quivering mass in creamy Dream Whip. The result was an ethereal dessert, light to eat and lovely to look at.


Mom was impressed when she woke from her deep sleep. I’d make her a steaming cup of Folgers instant coffee, and served it with a slice of rainbow cake. She couldn’t believe my culinary skills. I felt proud, accomplished. Pleased to please her.

I wonder, now, at her life during my Jell-O years. The reason we had cases of Jell-O was because we had finally gone on food stamps, and Mom was stocking up on the food we’d never been able to afford. Not only did we have copious amounts of Jell-O, but an entire case of: Dream Whip, which felt like a great richness to me. But there was Mom, in a poverty of spirit, bone-tired on the couch, the weight of the world on her slim shoulders, my father drinking, and then dying young, while their daydreaming daughter whipped up confections in layered rainbow hues. Perhaps I was trying, always, to find that pot of gold, the shimmering thing buried in all the trouble, the thing that would make the world come right, would make my mother not so tired, my father present, my family whole, myself, whole. Such was my hope in the Jell-O Years.

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Jennifer L. Thornburg is a creative writing teacher and poet who lives in Bozeman, Montana, where she raises crazy-looking heirloom tomatoes. She is currently working on a memoir and can be found on Facebook.

Jell-O Rainbow Cake


3 oz. each Jell-O black raspberry, lime, lemon, orange, and strawberry flavors

5 c. boiling water

2 1/2 c. cold water

1 envelope Dream Whip Dessert Topping Mix or 1 c. whipping cream


Line sides of a 9- or 10-in. springform pan with wax paper, cut to extend 3 in. above pan.

Dissolve each package of Jell-O separately in 1 c. boiling water.

Add 1/2 c. cold water to each.

Refrigerate until thickened.

Whip black raspberry Jell-O with a rotary beater or electric mixer until fluffy and about doubled in volume.

Spoon into pan.

Chill until set, but not firm.

Whip remaining flavors, and add to pan, letting each layer chill until set, but not firm, before adding next layer.

Chill until firm or overnight.

Loosen around edges and remove sides of pan and paper.

Prepare dessert topping mix as directed on package, or whip cream.

Spread over top and sides of cake.