Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #11: Gelatin Gems from the Past

As a kid, I thought Jell-O was a generic term. Although I remember seeing Royal gelatin and pudding mixes at the store, my mom was a loyal Jell-O consumer.

I love finding these cute vintage recipe booklets at the used bookstores or antique shops and snagged this one dated 1942. I even wrote in the back where and when I purchased it, which I often forget to do: Hancock, MI, August 28, 1991. I lived near there, in the Upper Peninsula, for many years.

This booklet contains recipes for puddings, “ice box” desserts, pies, ice creams, candies, soups, gravies, fruit salads, main dish salads, and of course, gelatin desserts! Here’s one that looks rather refreshing for a hot day like today…

Whenever I see a “fancy” gelatin recipe like this, I think back to a major Jell-O fail I experienced in my youth. The spring I graduated from high school, I was supposed to take a dessert to the Junior/Senior Banquet at school. My parents and younger brother were going out of town, I think to pick up my older sister from college. My mother told me how to make the dessert out of Jell-O, fruit, and something to make it creamy…maybe Kool Whip? She warned me to make it well in advance so it would have time to set. Well, that didn’t happen, and I took a very soupy dessert to school that evening.

No one at my table ate any of it, and I certainly didn’t admit that I had provided that particular dish. The next day, we were supposed to pick up the washed plates and bowls from the cafeteria, and I was embarrassed to do that, thinking the workers would connect my face to the disaster in the bowl. I think maybe I told Mom it was nowhere to be found when I went to check. Possibly I never told her the truth. Knowing me as she did, she may have guessed something close to the real story.

Speaking of gelatin, I’m reminded that this particular product is made from animal parts. Now eating as a vegan, this bothers me, so I looked into some likely vegan gelatin substitutes. Several of these are brand name products that may or may not be available at the grocery, health food store, or online. A few of the suggestions are more generic, however, and can be found in many shops. If you know of any similar products that are easy to find, please let us know in the comments.

And if you have any “Jell-O fails” you’d like to share, we’d love to read about them!

85 thoughts on “Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #11: Gelatin Gems from the Past

  1. Your post has made me transfer, irremediably, to childhood with the recipes for gelatin desserts. I remember that at birthday parties the jellies of different colors were never lacking and their taste was an incomparable delight. Nothing like going back to that time of innocence. The book looks great despite its age. I really liked reading you. Good Sunday to you.

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  2. I can’t think of any Jell-O fails I’ve committed. I never tried to get fancy with it. There was this Jell-O candy my mother made occasionally, and I’ve never seen a recipe for it. I’m wondering if it might be in the little recipe book you bought. I remember it was cut in cubes.

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    1. Hi Liz, I checked for candy cut like that. There are two cut in squares: Turkish Fruit Squares and Apple Squares. They both have nuts in them. Do those ring any bells? Oh, and there’s one other made with fig syrup and nuts, then rolled in powdered sugar. These all use various flavors of gelatin.

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      1. Here’s the recipe, Liz!
        TURKISH FRUIT SQUARES
        2/3 C boiling water
        2 pkgs. raspberry gelatin
        2 C sugar
        1/2 C cold water
        1/2 C chopped pecans
        1/2 C chopped raisins
        powdered sugar
        Add boiling water to gelatin & allow to stand for 15 mins. Boil sugar and cold water without stirring to 238 F. or until sugar spins a thread. Remove from heat; slowly add hot syrup to gelatin mixture, stirring well. Add nuts and raisins; mix well. Pour into shallow pan which has been rinsed in cold water. Chill overnight. Unmold on a board covered with powdered or granulated sugar, or chopped nuts. Cut into squares with sharp knife. Roll each square in sugar or nuts and allow to dry. Makes 50 1-in. squares.

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  3. Love the story about your jello fail! Mine involved my mom too, For a school event, she made that old standard – green jello with shaved carrots. It didn’t compare to some of the other desserts, and no one ate any of it. I didn’t want her to know that; so I dumped most of it in the garbage at the school and took home the metal cake pan with just a little jello left in it. I never told her the real story, and I’m glad I didn’t.

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  4. No Jello-Fail experiences to relate but I am feeling sorry that I have failed to put details of the book purchase in the book itself. What an excellent idea. I will try to remember to remedy that book fail next time I buy a book.

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  5. I wasn’t very old when I learned the best Jello trick: use only half the boiling water called for, and then add ice cubes for a quick set. The most amusing Jello story I have involves a young man who was eating at a local cafeteria with his father. Dad told him he could have anything he wanted for dinner, so he chose several dishes of Jello: one in each color.

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  6. Oh fond memories of Jello recipes! Yes that is such a find. it brought back memories of Mom’s jello with canned fruit cocktail suspended in it. You had to stir it in at just the right time or it would sink to the bottom of the Jello- not uncommon.

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  7. My grandmother ran an illicit catering company and often made jello desserts for clients. As a 7 year old I was to help mix in fruit….well, I had a small half eaten bag of jelly beans in my pocket. So in addition to adding strawberries to the red Jello dessert I also added the licorice jelly beans and a few of the other jelly beans just to add more variety of colors… I always wondered how it turned out.

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  8. Love your story. It also took me back to childhood. I always aspired to making one of those molds that kind of looked like crowns. I was never able to unmold it. Always half would stick to the pan and my fruit always sunk to the bottom.😱

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  9. What a delightful story and presentation of that nifty recipe book! I think we’ve all had our gelatin dessert fails in the distant past, and we always admired those domestic goddesses who whipped up glorious desserts on demand. The vegan challenge is a real thing, right? Lovely post, Becky.

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      1. I’ve used agar agar (from seaweed) in cooking. I used it more as a thickener (like for stews) than a gelatin that “sets.” I do see recipes that use it more that way, however. Healthfood stores often have vegetarian/vegan gelatin-type products. And I see that Swanson Vitamins (where I often buy supplements) carries Simply Delish jel dessert, which uses carrageenan as the “gelatin.” I may try it sometime!

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  10. I haven’t made Jell-O in years
    My disasters were usually inadequate stirring or inaccurate liquid measuring. Some molds are easier to work with than others. Loved your post.πŸ™„

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  11. Oh, I love looking at the old Jell-O recipes and pictures. The things people would make! Incredibly fascinating–and as for your “public” cooking disaster–I can sympathize. Oh, the things I’ve taken to banquets sometimes (LOL).

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    1. They’re fun, aren’t they Cecelia?! I think just the idea that I have to take something I’ve make out into public is asking for trouble. Either it makes me too nervous or I try something that I haven’t made before:(

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  12. I recall all sorts of jelly delights as a girl – it was always a popular pudding back then. I’m guessing these days, with so many women working – time is often at a premium and those puddings need to be made well in advance or they simply won’t work. Thank you for a lovely trip down memory lane. Gran didn’t get fancy, but I always loved her jelly with tinned manderin oranges and condensed milk… A solid favourite with me!

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  13. My Mom used to have books like this, too – so cute – and I do remember Royal being on the shelf. In fact, I think my Mom used to use Jell-O for Jell-O, but Royal for puddings, because I can see a box of Butterscotch. Yes, I learned a few decades ago about what’s in gelatin desserts/products, and haven’t had any since. In marshmallows, too. I know one can find vegan marshmallows, but I seem to survive just fine without either!

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  14. There’s a famous story my mother liked to tell about my sister, who put the family goldfish to swim in some jelly (jello) left out to set. Disaster for goldfish! Whether the family ate the jelly I don’t know. It all happened before I was born.

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    1. Oh, I absolutely love that family story, Maria! You should write a children’s book about it, but maybe with a happy ending, somehow…maybe they could jump out into the sink, or something, as the jello begins to set???

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      1. This is probably why I don’t write for children. My thoughts turn to the darker side – the goldfish remains set in orange jello. It’s a nice idea though, Becky. I should challenge myself to find a happy ending!

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  15. I remembered another jello story from some time ago: a friend had a very elderly aunt who wasn’t very mobile on her feet. Aunt Gwen would make jello shots for parties and would sit beside a cooler full of the jello shots in the church style communion glasses and tray. One would take a break in the friendly game of croquet or Bocce ball and chat with Aunt Gwen. She would offer jello shots with tequila or vodka etc – the color of jello indicated which was which- and she’d lift out a communion tray and offer the tray of shot glasses toward one. One gulped it and returned the empty glass to the tray. I always felt blessed afterwards. 😁

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  16. I’m British, so here it was ‘jelly’. Some was produced by big brands, but it didn’t have a brand name. There was a kind which came in a wobbly tablet you tore apart and was nice, although always, always far too sweet (and I was a kid with a sweet tooth) and an ‘instant’ kind which was a powder and totally disgusting, both in taste and texture.

    The last time I made something with jelly it was individual trifles for a family Christmas lunch. I was about to pour the melted jelly onto the sponge when it occurred to me that the gelatine might be from pigs. My sister-in-law wouldn’t eat that, and the wrapper was way down in the bin – so instead of jelly in hers I used a large glass of sherry (sherry is a very strong wine, traditionally a small amount is added to trifles). Obviously that layer didn’t set, but she enjoyed it!

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  17. My dad’s family was really into Jello desserts or as a side salad thing. My mother rarely made it. I made it occasionally. Now that BOOK! I love it!! I love old and antique books. That one is so colorful and happy looking, it would have to be in view all the time. You can keep the jello, I’d take the book anytime. πŸ™‚

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      1. In Michigan, I’ve lived as far south as Big Rapids and as far north as Laurium, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, although I grew up in Tawas City, on Lake Huron. Where do you go when you go “up North?”

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  18. I love vintage cookbooks. My Mom used to tease that I was working on 101 uses for Jello! I still make Watergate salad with pistachio Jello pudding mix once a summer and I am required to make Cherry Coke Jello every Christmas. My sister, who is an excellent cook and maker of Cheesecakes, cannot get Jello to set. It is rather comical.

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