Utah is famously known for its per capita consumption of Jell-O—so much so that two decades ago, in 2001, the Utah State Legislature voted to name Jell-O its official state snack.
But apart from Utahns’ hearty consumption of Jell-O, the roots of the connection are shrouded. Jell-O is among the most well-known consumer products in the United States, and it was one of the first to blaze the trail of modern target marketing and branding in the early portion of the 20th century. Jell-O marketers squished Jell-O onto dinner tables via (1) a catchy slogan (“There’s always room for Jell-O”); (2) a fleet of snappily dressed salesmen; and (3) a slew of free cookbooks and recipe placements in bless-this-house publications like Ladies’ Home Journal.
But how did Jell-O and Utah become such a great punchline—a state joke up there with fry sauce and multiple wives?
Theory: The main appeal of Jell-O lies in its famous 1964 slogan, one of the most honest slogans in the history of huckstering. Jell-O is light, goes down effortlessly and has a pleasant (but not sinfully pleasant) taste. It is not healthy; neither is it unhealthy. It just is. And it’s cheap. Let’s face it, for the better part of the 20th century, everyone was broke (and now we’re back).
The modest, fruity kick of Jell-O brought a dash of color and life to tabletops laden with drab, gray meals. It slid its way into the tight budgets of America as easily as it slides down your throat. On grocery bills and in stomachs, there is indeed “always room.”
It stands to reason, then, that Utah’s moms, with their large families to feed, would find even more common cause with the bringer of color to the family dinner. I grew up amid large LDS families where there was a strong emphasis on buying in bulk, cooking in bulk and possessing larders the size of Carlsbad Caverns.
When you’re feeding 10 hungry mouths, Jell-O becomes a must-have foodstuff to fend off sweet-toothed mutiny. At the Willis compound (family of 10), there were always ice cube trays of red (is that a flavor?) Jell-O in the fridge during the summer. Hungry? Have a cube of Jell-O. It wasn’t luxury, but it sure tasted good after an afternoon of running through the sprinklers.
And thus, hunger for something lively amid dull—albeit fortifying—meals placed Jell-O firmly on the table at the ward picnic. And Utah moms and grandmoms, culinary Chuck Yeagers, have pushed Jell-O’s limitations past the sound barrier. Jell-O with mandarin oranges (yummy), carrots (erm) and whipped topping, even today, pay living testament to a time when a little bright, jiggling a dollop of gelatin and Red Dye No. 3 was cause for delight. Utah’s jiggling version of Proust’s Madeleine.
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