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Food Matters
For more than a thousand years, dishes that wiggle and wobble have bounced to the fore during precarious eras.
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IN A VIDEO clip posted to Instagram, a jelly shimmies. With fluted curves like a Bundt cake, it suggests a ball gown skirt gone rogue, the dancer within turned ghost or banished from the scene. Elsewhere online lurk ornate jellies, from 18th-century British molds, with high, gooey spires that dip wildly from side to side, to cheesecakes, ostensibly solid yet vibrating, as if in thrall to some erratic internal pulse. (These are Japanese cotton cheesecakes, so called because of their confounding lightness, achieved by folding in egg whites whipped into peaks and then baking the cakes in a hot-water bath.) Sometimes the oscillations are slowed down to a tidal ripple. Sometimes a human hand enters the frame, spanking a cheesecake to make it bounce or, in a curious trend that started in 2019, wielding a spoon to smack the bottom of a little gelatinous pig or bunny — reminding us that the food in question cannot move of its own power; that it is not, in fact, alive.
How does a disembodied gesture, void of agency and intent, gain traction in a culture? Quivering foods, with jelly as their exemplar, have become objects of fascination in recent years, silly and mesmerizing in equal measure. There are Instagram accounts and Facebook groups devoted to serious experiments in gelatin, but raw footage of a shapeless blob of Jell-O, simply shaken so it heaves, can just as easily earn thousands of views. For those who want to witness such convulsions in the flesh, the British culinary artists Bompas & Parr — who once half-engulfed an iron steamship in more than 14,500 gallons of lime jelly, the flavor highlighting the vulnerability of 19th-century sailors to scurvy — opened the Jelladrome at London’s Arcade Food Hall in April, serving jelly shots and teetering trifles (perhaps in homage to the jelly houses of the 18th century, akin to ice cream parlors and, as one city guide of the time noted, a favored trysting place for “rakes and girls of the town”).
Yet dishes that wobble are hardly novelties in cooking. The ancient Romans made proto-custards out of a surplus of eggs after the widespread domestication of fowl in their territories; the technique was lost with the fall of empire but later rediscovered in Europe, where flan was enshrined in the Spanish culinary canon and, via the conquistadors, entered the cuisines of the Philippines and Mexico. A recipe for qaris, fish tongues suspended in a congealed broth of fish heads boiled in vinegar, appears in the 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook “Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen” and, by the 14th century, the culinary use of gelatin was recognized in Europe as both practical — functioning as a seal to protect meat from rot — and luxurious. While peasants fortified themselves with squelchy slabs of headcheese, elaborate aspics graced the tables of Europe’s upper classes, who could dispatch servants to do the time-consuming work of watching over the great pots of bones, hides, horns or hooves that had to be boiled until leached of their collagen, the fiberlike protein that is the main component of connective tissue and that, when heated, breaks down into gelatin. (The 14th-century French cookbook “Le Viandier” advises, “Whoever wants to make a gelée must not sleep.”) Elsewhere in the world, different ingredients have long yielded textures of similar ambivalence: A Korean medical manual from the 17th century recommends acorn jelly for patients suffering from dysentery; the discovery of agar is attributed to a 17th-century Japanese innkeeper who one morning found that his leftover seaweed soup had thickened into a solid.
Like their predecessors, today’s unstable centerpieces offer a spirit of spectacle and provocation beyond how daintily they tremble. YouTube tutorials explain how to deploy syringes of liquid jelly to make flowers bloom under crystal clear domes, calling to mind Victorian paperweights. In the forthcoming cookbook-manifesto “The Great Gelatin Revival: Savory Aspics, Jiggly Shots and Outrageous Desserts,” the California-based historian Ken Albala includes an aspic recipe for whole baby octopuses, napping in sacs of sake jelly. Online, you can order a cheesecake topped with an edible orange-pink baby nestled in jelly (from Nünchi bakery in Los Angeles) or a do-it-yourself kit to make mizu shingen mochi, a Japanese cake that defies Western understandings of the word by taking the form of a giant raindrop and tasting mostly, mind-clarifyingly, of water (from New York’s Raindrop Cake).
But a number of people have come to fixate on the wobble alone, isolated in brief videos and GIFs of even the most banal-looking jellies, puddings and flans, whose only distinguishing feature is their capacity to shudder. Perhaps the most telling GIF captures the moment in the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park” when the undulations of a spoonful of green Jell-O turn seismic. GIFs, while unrestricted in length, typically last only a matter of seconds (the faster to load), so these are moving images largely shorn of context, the residue of a culture cannibalized for parts and reduced to its starkest impulses. The “Jurassic” scene, cut off before you get to the punchline — the girl clutching the spoon of Jell-O has seen the shadow of a velociraptor and, in it, her potential demise — is distilled into sheer terror.
There’s a “cyclical pattern” in how society responds to such eerily animate foods, Albala argues in “The Great Gelatin Revival”: “Periods that embrace the jiggle are always followed by periods of disgust sometimes so intense and visceral that entire generations lose the skill to make them.” If we now embrace the jiggle, is it because we’ve become accustomed to precarity as a way of life, with the threat of pandemic barely contained and the global economy just a wobble away from recession? Do we, too, face the raptor?
IN THE FIRST half of the 20th century, new arrivals to the United States, detained and awaiting processing at Ellis Island, found themselves confronted with plates of glossy, swaying Jell-O. These woozy manifestations (maybe evoking the queasiness of recent voyages at sea) were made from a powdered form of gelatin, first patented as a flavorless “portable gelatin” in 1845 and largely ignored by the public; revamped in the late 1890s with food coloring, fruit juices, sugar and a catchy name; and then mass marketed in the early 1900s as “America’s most famous dessert” before it actually was — advertising as self-fulfilling prophecy. The capitalized, half-ejected “O” of the name was part of the attempt to charm, playful and as round as a gaping mouth: an exclamation, a gasp, a cheer.
Nevertheless, as recorded in an archive of oral histories collected by the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, those seeking refuge in America were often mystified, even unnerved, by this supposed exemplar of the national cuisine. “Oh, it shivers,” one teenager from Ukraine, then suffering through a famine that may have claimed as many as two million lives, recalled of encountering the dessert in 1923. Another, who had fled wartime France in 1941, was still haunted decades later by the traumatic memory of Jell-O, saying, “When I saw it, I got sick, that wobbly thing. It was terrible. I said, ‘Put it away.’ I couldn’t even look at it.” Others echoed a sense of disorientation: “We were afraid to eat it”; “hardly anyone touched it.” Undaunted, the Ellis Island administrators dispensed ridged aluminum molds (with the Jell-O brand name prominently embossed) to those fortunate enough to make it through the system so they could recreate the oscillations when they settled into their new homes.
For these immigrants, Jell-O was an encounter with the unfamiliar. Although gelatinized dishes had long been part of European food culture, until the late 19th century, “making a reliably clear, firm and successful jelly from basic ingredients remained a challenge for most everyday cooks and housewives,” the British food historian Peter Brears writes in “Jellies and Their Moulds” (2010). It took advances in science and technology to develop gelling agents that were fast acting and inexpensive, and the hustle of capitalism to turn them into household essentials. Jell-O — the name of both the granulated gelatin product and the dessert it made — was a portent of a new way of not only cooking but living.
In this it had the sheen of artifice, which may also explain some of the unease it inspired. Jell-O verged on the unnatural in the impeccable smoothness of its surfaces, bearing no trace of the forces that went into its creation, as if sprung forth from the packet fully formed without a cook’s intervention. Arguably, it falls into the category of what the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, in his 1957 essay collection, “Mythologies,” identifies as a kind of “ornamental” cooking that “is based on coatings and alibis, and is for ever trying to extenuate and even to disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs” — namely, the “brutality” of food, which is to say, the animal need for it and the violence and toil that go into procuring and making it. Consider that 10th-century ur-jelly, qaris: The Iraqi food historian Nawal Nasrallah notes in the 2007 edition of “Annals” that one dinner guest was scandalized to learn that 150 tongues had been harvested to make the dish, although it was the cost of the ingredients that sparked outrage, not the wastefulness of sacrificing so many fish for a single meal, or the labor expended in pursuit of such an ephemeral pleasure. Blancmange, a pale almond-and-chicken stew that by the 18th century had drifted into the sweets category and evolved into a shyly quaking milk pudding, is similarly delicate and soothing, qualities that were historically made possible by hartshorn, shavings from severed deer antlers, or isinglass, dried swim bladders plucked from fish.
Jell-O is so far removed from the medieval pot of boiling hooves that some have questioned whether it should be considered an animal product at all. As recounted by the American cultural critic Marjorie Garber in “Symptoms of Culture” (1998), Kraft General Foods issued a flier in 1993 stating that, in the process of manufacturing Jell-O, “the composition and identity of the original material is completely eliminated.” Just as Jell-O in its blandness is an obliging carrier for other flavors, so, too, as a dish liberated from origins it can take on any meaning or narrative. In the first decades of the product’s existence, American home cooks, who were primarily women, saw Jell-O as a timesaving wonder, as well as a way to impose order, turning the chaos of vegetables into decorative molded salads — “a kind of nonfood,” the culinary historian Laura Shapiro writes in “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century” (1986). The Jell-O salad’s tidiness and fragility could be read as proof of femininity, giving cover to the less feminine and dangerously indecorous act of eating itself, which, “as far as gently raised women of their era were concerned … was not to be considered a pleasure except with great discretion.”
The nonfood quality of Jell-O may have led to its undoing: After decades as a household staple, it began to fall out of favor in the ’70s and ’80s as the countercultural movement nudged the rest of society away from corporate processed foods. So the interest in wiggling jellies today may be partly driven by pure nostalgia for a lost childhood treat, half-snack, half-toy. But there’s a mocking self-consciousness to some of these modern incarnations, an awareness of form and its divorce from content. The familiar is made strange so that we can see it properly, as if for the first time. A lurid blood red jelly cake full of glaring eyeballs, made by a company called Solid Wiggles in Brooklyn, is hardly dainty; instead, it calls attention to gelatin as an animal (and human) substance. We see that what holds a body together can be so easily reduced into something unsteady and irresolute. We remember.
WATCH THAT WOBBLE,” as the 1980s jingle said. The movement is brief yet infinite, primal and historic, the perfect fit for a GIF or an Instagram video clip on automatic repeat. It keeps looping back, forever wobbling, going nowhere, rejecting narrative, learning nothing. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to be free of the need to convey meaning for once, to not have to tell a story or build an argument that comes to a satisfying conclusion? The loop may be a trap — a manic cycle that, as the Irish science and technology journalist Chris Baraniuk has written, “implicitly begs to be halted” — or a promise of eternity. In the end, we are the ones who can choose to call it quits or go with the flow, flick to another screen or just step away from the phone.
But are we truly in control? Another way to understand the wobble is to think of it as a mistake — a glitch in the system. The Dutch artist Rosa Menkman defines a glitch as a “break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning.” We don’t expect our food to frolic on the plate. There’s a disconcerting throb of life in these jigglers, an insistence on being in between, neither solid nor liquid, not quite pacified. They’re fundamentally disobedient, foods that move when they’re supposed to be motionless, forcing us to think about how often people eat living things with the slaughter kept safely offstage, or even with their life force not yet fully relinquished: live shrimp dazed in a liquor brine, say, or a snake and its still-beating heart. And like computer glitches, they belie our fantasy of authority, hinting at a ghost in the machine. Although, of course, they can’t move without us shaking them. Their independence is a mirage; we may devour them with no risk of retaliation. But this means we’re the ones introducing the error, trying to interrupt and disrupt the placidity of our own lives — or to enact, in the most harmless and thus consoling of forms, our fears of disaster.
Because there is a story here, after all, with a moral to boot: It wobbles but does not fall.
Food styling by Suea. Digital tech: Sarah Gardner. Food stylist’s assistant: Minah Kwon
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