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Jell-O Quilt = State Pride?

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You can hardly blame Jell-O, that venerable, jiggly food beloved by kids since 1897, for the timing of World War III. Or the company's oddly patriotic idea of making a "quilt" out of fancifully decorated Jell-O No Bake desserts laid out in the shape of North Carolina. Or that the Mountain State Fair in Fletcher, N.C. (a suburb of Asheville), site of the Jell-O display, had decided to go on despite the attacks in New York and Washington. "People work very hard at these things and they obviously have been planning for it," says Jell-O/Kraft Foods spokesperson Nora Bertucci, who appeared at the event.

The contest's theme was "Fun at the Mountain State Fair": the winner featured a midway-style "step-up-and-try-your luck" attraction, complete with Gummi bear "prizes." (For intricacy, it didn't hold a candle to the dessert entered at the Iowa State Fair, where a Des Moines woman spent three days constructing her mock up of the Jell-O event, complete with, in Bertucci's words, "fingernail-sized" decorated desserts, tiny judges and more.)

It seems Jell-O had decided their user demographic was the state fair-going type, and what says "state fair" more than a quilt? The event, part of a "tour" of fairs throughout Jell-O's strongest regions (i.e., the Midwest, that bastion of canned-soup casseroles and other "quick," fiber-free foods), is still in its first year. Bertucci admits that people are confused by the idea of a "quilt" made of chilled desserts, "but once they see it, they go, 'Ohhhh,'" she adds, nodding, as if it makes perfect sense.

"At a lot of the states, we have people that will walk around and point to a quilt and say, 'That's where I live.'"

As expected, the fair was a somewhat subdued affair: the midway carnies less insistent and obnoxious, the livestock barns only partially filled. The mood was festive but preoccupied; that morning, fairgoers had awoken to find they were at "war," a war that could, they were cautioned, go on for years. Several commentators even referenced the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam: another autumn conflict, another Texan in the White House, the country once again mobilizing for retribution.

Was normalcy--the whole "Just carry on" attitude espoused by TV pundits and their array of child psychologists and the like--the way to go? Leading to the question: Could something as innocuous as Jell-O have anything to do with national pride?

The dessert--both pudding and gelatin--is a staple of mid-American family get-togethers, birthdays and funerals. Jell-O products have seen us through two world wars (will we be seeing a re-print of Bright Spots for Wartime meals--66 Ration-Wise Recipes?). And, for the first quarter of the 20th century, the humble dessert was served to immigrants at Ellis Island as part of a "Welcome to America" program, perhaps even imprinting the idea of Jell-O with freedom for those brand-new Americans.

That Saturday morning, driving Interstate 40 to the fair's site, I alternated the radio between NPR and whatever talk-radio formats I could get on the AM dial. With the grandeur of the Smoky Mountains in the distance, I heard our untried, prompter-reliant president vow to "smoke 'em out of their holes," meaning the terrorists, maybe even Osama bin Laden himself. But in Western Carolina, the air was crisp and sweet, the sky--ash and debris free--a gospel-record blue. And aside from every gas station and eating establishment announcing their patriotism by changing their lettered signs from "The McRib is Back" and "Lowest Gas Prices Around" to "God Bless America" (only one "Bomb bin Laden"), Western Carolina seemed very far indeed from the World Trade Center.

Note: Next year, Jell-O hopes to hold a countrywide competition between the different states and their "quilts." If we're at war, the state pride/nationalism issue will, no doubt, get the full No Bake treatment.

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