Thanksgiving Jell-O

Past Thanksgiving Jell-O contest contenders: Diet Cherry Coke Jell-O; the Jell-O Cello; the Parting of the Red Sea in Jell-O.


SOME HOLIDAY TRADITIONS have noble roots, emerging from long-held cultural values or evolving out of time-honored family rituals. But now and then, a goofy tradition springs into being accidentally, a half-baked little casserole that ought to have been tossed out with last year’s fruitcake.

Just such a step-brainchild was my nutty idea to launch a Thanksgiving Jell-O competition. I was standing in the kitchen the night before our holiday meal, whipping up the obligatory lime Jell-O with the obligatory canned pears, when I suddenly thought, “If the Egyptians had Jell-O, they might have built the pyramids out of this stuff.” (If you’ve ever tried to scrape week-old Jell-O out of a stainless steel bowl, you know whereof I speak.) So I called up my sisters, my kids, and all the cooks scheduled to show up the next day bearing cream of chicken-enhanced hot dishes and announced a Jell-O contest. “What is a Jell-O contest?” one of them asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “We’re inventing this as we go along.”

I stayed up half the night trying to build a tiered wedding cake out of orange gelatin. Engineering problems—well, mainly gravity—obliterated my efforts and the whole thing splatted like a jellyfish all over the kitchen table. On the other hand, my pastry chef daughter’s entry was brilliant. She made clear gelatin from scratch (who knew you could?) in the mold of a B-52, and stuck a plastic, itty-bitty superheroine into the pilot seat. Voila! Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. But the winning entry came from Uncle John, who poured blue Jell-O into a fish bowl, submerged a miniature deep sea diver under the keratin waves, poked Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers and gummy worms down in there at varying levels, and carried a lit votive candle around behind it to cast watery-looking shimmers. He won, but controversy ensued. Two other uncles had labored mightily to create ring molds of cranberry, lemon, and strawberry, and pretended to be incensed at Uncle John’s sidestepping the “edibility rule”—which, of course, had yet to be written.

“Next year,” said my sweet little sister, shaking a finger at Uncle John. “You’re goin’ down.” The Playtex gloves were off and an annual tradition was born.

One year later, she and her husband duct-taped an eight-foot-long hollow Plexiglas tube to the frozen drainpipe outside their front door, erected a ladder, and set the alarm clock. Every few hours, they woke up, mixed up a fresh flavor of Jell-O, walked outside, climbed the ladder to the top of the tube, and poured another color in to settle atop the already-set layers below. The rainbow Jell-O-meter was born. But it faced stiff competition. Uncle John designed his own molds out of rope, Styrofoam, and who-knows-what to cook up a realistically rendered Jell-O hamburger (with lettuce, tomato, and a Kaiser bun), fries, and a malt. It was a thing of beauty. Yet he was beat out by my daughter-in-law, Megan, who cooked up gigantic twin cherry Cokes out of cherry Coke-flavored Jell-O with Jell-O cherries and Jell-O froth.

Before the turkey comes out of the oven, Jell-O competitors must solemnly parade their entries around the dining room for all to see, accompanied by the strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. This rule survived only three years. Megan’s Jell-O cello licorice strings and frosting f-holes were too fragile for the march. Chris’s Emerald City and fields of poppies from the Wizard of Oz couldn’t be lifted, and Gretchen’s life-sized ruby slippers wiggled so much they split in half like the Titanic.

Uncle John continues to stretch the boundaries of the non-existent rules. He constructed a turkey shoot out of a cardboard backdrop, an air gun, and paper feathers glued onto Jell-O boxes. Hence the warm family photo of a sea of smiling folks in holiday sweaters and my nephew taking aim at the groceries with a rifle. Last year, Uncle John invented Jell-O-mation, cutting dinosaurs out of Jell-O and making an iMovie of their adventures. We are never sure if his entries should be disqualified or rewarded for their technical merits.

I’ve only won once: last year, for my epic “Parting of the Red Sea.” An Indiana Jones action figure was Moses and birthday cake pirates wrapped in raffia were the Pharoah’s army. Okay, so using the Arc of the Covenant was historically inaccurate, but hey, it came in the blister pak with Indiana. The thing took $30 worth of red Jell-O, and like Cecil B. DeMille, I’m not telling how I got the seas to rise up into watery walls to let the children of Israel pass.

The Jell-O competition is now in its something-or-otherth year and has become a essential part of our Thanksgiving tradition, though it didn’t used to be there at all. It doesn’t hark back to my grandmother in her Iowa kitchen, the way making lefse on Christmas Eve day does for my children. It doesn’t conjure up my aunts singing Lutheran hymns in the kitchen the way baking sugar cookies using Aunt Mary’s recipe does for me. My ancestors didn’t craft mountains out of Jell-O, although cumulatively they probably carried that much of it in aluminum cake pans into church basement suppers. It is a new bud on the ancient tree of generations, our Jell-O competition. It winks to traditions past, but it is in the moving forward that it becomes a tradition for those unborn people who come after us. This Christmas, my first grandchild arrives, and he will never have known a world without the Jell-O competition. To him, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance won’t mean “graduation,” but “Uncle John won again!” Traditions are not always about who came before. Traditions are also about who’s coming after.

This was published on the Op-Ed page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune November 25, 2009 under the title “This tradition, too, breaks the mold.” Read it here.


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