As we move from Jello’s past into the present day of jelly cakes and jello shots, it is clear that jiggly foods cannot be separated from nostalgia, memory, and the idea of child-like wonder. More than simply a dry good, Jello is a substance that is both sustaining and entertaining. What we can’t get over - what keeps tripping us up - is the idea of who gets to play. Which children get to play, what does childhood innocence protect and why?
The questions that Jello raises are not abstract ideas separate from our everyday lives but rather, intricately woven into how we think and live. Jello, and by extension childhood and innocence are not static figures and instead, as Cathy Park Hong puts it, “ an active state of repelling knowledge; innocence being both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness (…) a deflection of one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy.”
Consider the tangible harm and violence committed in the name of protecting children right now. From QAnon’s“Save the Children” mantra (CW: mentions of child pornography) curdling into the 1/6 Insurrection, to the disingenuous rationale of “protecting” student athletes. All while the children that need protecting - from police killings, from family separations - continue to have their innocence stolen. The innocence of children - white children that is - is a powerful tool that betrays its playfulness. A playfulness found in Jello’s multitudes: power, labor, and invisibility hiding behind pleasure, wonder, and magic.
We are now transitioning into a different state of pandemic life we are slowly integrating play and movement back into our lives. But play has always been fraught. And when we jump further into jelly work, the results become murkier. There are also examples of true joy, of making for making’s sake, and the ephemerality of existence. Much of this was found in speaking to bakers, cocktail makers, artists, and pastry chefs from all over the world that are exploring the deep workings of jelly. May we all experience this delight in some way.
Alana Dao, co-founding/managing editor
Words and interviews conducted by Alana Dao
During the beginning of the pandemic, our need to create and seek joy dovetailed with the desire for community and connection. Sourdough, banana bread, Zoom hangouts, and letters to friends all stoked small fires to keep us going while a global pandemic, late stage capitalism, and large-scale failures crushed us from the outside. And strangely enough, jelly cakes, boozy or otherwise, helped fill this void for some of us in both the making and consumption of them - literally and digitally.
After the deep history of Jello as a food and Jell-o as All-American brand that Sara provided us, food writer Bettina Makalintal now accompanies us as we look forward. Jelly work has always been a way for people to gather in the name of experimentation and now, with Instagram fueling their obvious visual appeal, the jelly cake has become a means of connection. Much of my conversation with Bettina centered on this central idea. From Facebook groups with cheeky names like “Show me your Aspics” to niche pastry communities, this connection and freedom to experiment is what has fueled inspiration and jelly work in the first place.
Bettina also tells me about jelly work at its edges; hyper-gross cakes that are meant to be messy, pushing the boundaries of jelly and what looks “nice.”
If Jello is enveloped with a shiny sheen yet vaguely unsettling in how it jiggles, what does it mean to lean into that unsettling feeling?
This underlying desire for destruction and the unappealing is always present alongside beauty and perfection. She notes that one cake maker, Murder Cake, occasionally uses the hashtag #uglyfoodisbeautiful to tow the line between our perceptions of what is beautiful and grotesque.
This is what is at the heart of Kiki Cheung’s work as Murder Cake, a jelly cake business based in Hong Kong. Kiki’s cakes are intricate and beautiful - toying with the fine line between cute and gothic, wild yet romantically polished. In correspondence with Kiki over email, she explains how Murder Cake has its own persona, aesthetic, and character that she has created. I realized that, perhaps in part to Jell-o’s far-reaching marketing, this jello nostalgia and desire for connection are global. Similar to the way cake Finstas work “as a place to be weird online” and reach out to others, Murder Cake functions as a place for freedom of expression, to experiment with adorability, beauty, and destruction.
Alana Dao: How did you first find out about jelly cakes and what made you want to attempt them?
Murder Cake: I am so into jello because I randomly saw an instagram (@paid.technologies). I have never thought jello could be performed in this way. The jello she made is just incredible and I would say they are all edible art pieces. I love her style so much!!! After that I tried to follow some jello Instagrams. I learned some basic skills from the Gelatin Art Market and even DM-ing some Jello Instagram. That's how I started my jello! Practice makes perfect never goes wrong. I did fail so many times but I always want to figure out the reason behind it.
AD: How did you come up with the name Murder Cake?
MC: You can never enjoy my cake without murdering the baby angel :'(
It's so cute that my clients would send back some creative photos of how they murdered my cake. It makes my cake more fun. They enjoy the process of cutting the cake.
AD: What goes into the cake/what kind of flavors do you make?
MC: There are few layers inside murder cake - cheese cake, sponge cake, jello :) Our recent flavour: lemon, hojicha & coffee. Baby angel cake is the best seller but the design actually was kind of an accident. I got some leftover cream cheese and I found that the baby angel pudding was perfectly fit with the cake base. I made my first baby angel cake and my friend photographed it. After posting on Instagram, unexpectedly, there were some DM enquiry about the cake order. So, it is actually a random design and I have never thought that people love it so much :)
AD: Who buys them and for what type of occasions?
MC: Perhaps 90% are young and cute girls. (For the rest are some boys buying for a girlfriend I guess?) Most of them make a purchase for their birthday. Some girls would order for themselves just because they want to eat.^^ It is so lovely~~~ because a cute girl deserves a cute cake. :) I love receiving the photos from them.
AD: Your cakes have such a distinct look, how did you decide on making the angel on the cake and what flavors are they, usually?
MC: My baby angel is in milk flavour. The texture is like pudding. Quite chewy.
AD: Is this your full time work now and do you plan on branching out into other types of cakes?
MC: I still have some other freelance jobs so I can't be dedicated to my cake business. I really want to have some more new attempts but I have no time to do that. Every day when I am done with the orders, I am already exhausted haha!!! I gotta manage all the enquiries, meet-up cake collection, buy ingredients & packing stuff.. It is just a one-man small business :'( I want to try so many cakes (not for sale but for my own eating) but my schedule does not allow me to do that.
AD: You mentioned that it seems like jello is a part of everybody’s childhood in Hong Kong. Can you tell me more about that or how it is a part of yours?
MC: This dessert, jelly candy, was so popular in my childhood. Every kid was required to prepare homemade snacks for school xmas/year-end parties.
Jelly candy is a kind of must-have item on the table. They were colorful and popular among kids. I still remember the scene of making jello with my mom :)
Of course when we've grown up, we no longer make this jello and we would look for other desserts when we want something sweet. So for me, jello is a childhood memory.
AD: Is there anything else you would like to share about how you think or feel about jelly cakes?
MC: I wish my @murder.cake could bring joys and make people smile :) Recently, more and more people tend to buy handmade cakes rather than from chain stores. I am so glad that most of my clients respect my design and accept the imperfect, which actually pushes me to make more improvements!
The idea of perfection and what we see on the screen versus real life made us realize that, despite the insane amount of time we’d spent looking, none of us had ever eaten one.
When I spoke with Bettina, she also told me she’d never had one either. It was as if the image itself was enough; that it is art rather than a food product. But what would it mean to try one? We went searching on the East Coast and were lucky to find Solid Wiggles, a New York based jelly cake business run by Jena Derman and Jack Schramm. Both Jena and Jack have been in the food industry working in pastry and behind the bar, respectively.
When I first saw their jelly cakes and jello shots, I was captivated by the intricacy and the saturated color of their gelatin work. They reminded me of glass paperweights or other inedible, decorative objects. When Solid Wiggles answered a few questions for us, it was no surprise that jelly work for them is, like it is for so many, a medium that coaxes creativity, connection, and intentional artistic practice.
Alana Dao (AD): What stoked your initial interest in gelatin jelly cakes and all things jiggly, as it relates to your work in food?
Solid Wiggles (SW): Solid Wiggles has two primary interests- things that are delicious and things that are beautiful. Jelly Cakes is the place where Jena’s expertise in pastry and Jack’s expertise in cocktails collide. We can combine our talents and make something greater than the sum of its parts.
AD: Jiggly foods and by extension, Jell-o, seem to elicit strong reactions based on the texture. They also have a reputation for being "child-like." Do you think this is part of its appeal and if so, what about its form and connotations have driven you to work with it?
SW: Absolutely! And even more than purely child-like connotations, I think that extends to a broader connotation of “joyful.” We all have a happy memory of a college party with Jell-O Shots or a ridiculous dive bar that had them on special. We’re trying to tap into those joyful memories and elevate them in artistry, texture, and flavor.
AD: One thing I've noticed about jelly cakes is the time and labor it must take to even make one. You have to create concepts and design and execute but also, jelly needs time to set! In terms of labor and production, I wonder a lot about cost. I think that pastry and food in general is often underpriced. How does this work into your own making? Or, does it take less time and labor than I think it does?
SW: You’re spot on in terms of time and labor! It’s why we moved away from single serving shots to larger format cakes- they take basically the same amount of time to make! We spend a lot of time finding the best suppliers and cutting deals because we want to price these in a way that more people can experience them.
Ultimately, we think it’s a fair price for a handmade piece of art that also happens to be delicious.
AD: How did you get into the jelly business and how did you learn how to do all the intricate design and flavor work?
SW: Jena has been making Jelly Cakes for years, while Jack was focused on clarifying juices for technologically advanced cocktails. Clarified juices are a natural fit to add flavors to a jelly cake, so it’s truly a dream partnership.
AD: What about jelly cakes and jelly art feels either high or low brow to you? In some ways, when I look at them, I think automatically of jello shots and college and cheap drinks. But your jelly shots seem a lot "fancier" and much more enjoyable? Is there a way to reconcile these two things (meaning for example, higher-end cocktail culture and the bucket of $1 jello shots at a cheap bar?)
SW: We don’t really feel the need to reconcile it- it can exist in this space that is both high brow and lowbrow and artistic and silly . We spent many years in some of the best bars and restaurants in New York, and ultimately all we were trying to do in those spaces is make people happy.
We found a way to do that in a way that also makes us happy. We keep circling back to joy, but it’s truly joy that drives us.
AD: How do you figure out or find inspiration for flavors and combinations? Can you tell me a little about how you conceive of and go about making your cakes?
SW: We take our backgrounds in pastry and cocktail and make something greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes they start with a classic cocktail like our Stunner that’s based on a Paloma, sometimes we want to explore a flavor profile like spiced cranberry that was the genesis of our Thanksgiving special, the Centerpiece.
AD: Your jelly cakes are so, so beautiful! Do you ever feel sad to know they're meant to be consumed? And relatedly, do you consider them more a fine art practice or culinary?
SW: We kind of morbidly love that they ultimately get destroyed. It’s exciting, because some of the most beautiful images of the cakes are of sliced cross-sections.
They get even more beautiful as they’re being consumed! We’re striving to make something so gorgeous and delicious that it lives an even longer and brighter life in the memory of a consumer than if the physical object could sit on a shelf collecting dust.
We ordered a non-alcoholic Dreamboat, a jelly cake with orange and cranberry jellies adorned with milk jelly flowers. After a day of missed deliveries and chasing two separate UPS guys down, I finally got my hands on it. I brought it to CTB for a meeting, carefully wrapped and snuggled into the passenger seat of my car. The outside of the box was a preview of what was inside with a Solid Wiggles sticker and friendly note to refrigerate upon arrival. Inside a silver cold-pack was a six-inch cake pan that had been painstakingly plastic-wrapped with very specific instructions on how to unmold the cake. I followed the Solid Wiggles instructions they had included to flip the jelly cake over to see it as God intended.
But the thought of flipping it made me anxious: what if, after all this, I tried to flip it and it cracked? Would it mean that I had run after a UPS truck for nothing? Would I inadvertently destroy this beautiful cake and my own preconceived notions of beauty and perfection? But this is what I loved about what both Murder Cake and Solid Wiggles told us: destruction is okay! Desired, even. So I flipped.
And nothing. So I tried again, saying my Mississippi’s a little more slowly. And this time, magic. As the hot water warmed the contents of the pan, the cake began to swivel from within. Quickly, I flipped it onto a plate and it fell out of the pan easily to reveal intricate pink and yellow milk jelly flowers encased in more jelly.
Everybody at CTB couldn’t stop looking at it. We were mesmerized by the jiggle. None of us wanted to be the one to cut it -- we were too nervous at the thought of wrecking it. Would it taste as good as it looked? Was that even the point? As we sliced into it, the jelly cake felt firmer than I thought it would and pleasing in a way: neither crumbly like a birthday cake but soft and supple as the butter knife ran through it.
When we all took bites, it tasted at once familiar yet more intensely flavored: Jell-o, but amped up beyond my wildest, jellied Luby’s dreams.
For those who had grown up eating Jell-o, cubed and shaped into molds, with Cool Whip on top, the jelly cake tasted particularly nostalgic. One co-worker commented that it felt like Jell-o but actually tasted of fruit instead of just... color. The cake was tart and tangy, firm but bouncy, everything Jello should be. It was sharp but softened by our own fond memories of jiggly foods.
This memory is part of the magic of Jello and even the physical nature of foods that jiggle to and fro. It stokes joy and a sense of magic. But this magic is more a misdirection, re-framing our perceptions and hiding the truth of labor, capitalism and race in the United States.
The beauty of the jelly cake captivated us but also made apparent how much work -- from concept to shipping -- the jelly cake took. Jello serves us fantasy in its smooth veneer, a mask behind which the messiness of work can hide.
Jello has certainly been intrinsic in our not-so-recent past but what will it mean to us in the future? Bettina predicts we will see much more of it in the future from literal jelly cakes to art and design trends. For example, she points to Billie, a razor company with a distinctive aesthetic that features opaquely glossy colors and curves. Another example she points to is the newfound popularity of “freeform blobs” in furniture design which deviates from the straight and minimal lines of the aughts. That gelatinous design has leached into many other aspects of contemporary aesthetics speaks to how jiggly foods can embody our collective internal thoughts and feelings. As Sara puts it, “the experience of jello is one of contained anxiety.” And there is so much for us to be anxious about -- of others, of the air we breathe, THE FUTURE OF THE PLANET AND OURSELVES ;)
Suspension in gelatin makes physical sense but the actual movement of its wiggly and jiggly nature seems to be in opposition to that. It all seems too complicated to pin down. And so I asked Sara, “How does one reconcile these things?” She simply responded that
“Jello is irreconcilable—that’s why it’s a great material to think with.” If that’s the case then, as Jena says, perhaps we shouldn’t try. Maybe jello exists outside of containment and this irreconcilability is actually the draw.
Jello transcends boundaries, moving freely between spaces, allowing for the idea of joy. Joy in the destruction of beauty, time, and labor. Time and joy are fleeting but Jello, it seems, is forever.
By Rafi Zimmerman
JELLO JIGGLERS: A Recipe
Back in the early 1920’s, Jell-O was becoming a staple in every American household, giving birth to an array of different colors, flavors and uses. By the early 1970’s, Jell-O had seen a decline in popularity and the company decided to introduce new ideas for Jell-O, which lead to the creation of the popular Jell-O Jigglers. They came in all sorts of molds - Halloween bats, Christmas trees, and of course the great Easter egg molds.
Every family has weird traditions that they look back on fondly and mine is Jell-O eggs for Easter. I remember waking up early the day before Easter, filling those little egg molds with Jell-O and anxiously awaiting for dinner to be over so that I could eat my eggs. The process to fill them was tedious and slightly time consuming, trying to pour hot gelatin into a little hole in an egg cup with a small funnel and then waiting for the eggs to solidify. As we waited for them to cool, my family and I would dye hard boiled eggs or go looking for a good tree branch for our Easter tree. The big reveal happened after Easter dinner, when us kids would rush to the refrigerator and open the molds to see if the eggs would look as we imagined. You could get into some cool designs with the Jell-O layering in different colors or setting the whole mold on its side and having lopsided eggs.
I haven’t made a Jell-O jiggler since I was a kid. But with the pandemic and the desire to go back to simpler times, my mind wandered back to these early mornings with my family and the fun that we all had together.
Easter egg Jell-O Jiggler mold - (can be found online or a thrift store kitchen section.)
1 small funnel
2 1/2 cups boiling water
2 packs flavored Jell-O, any flavor
*prepare the egg molds by wiping a small amount of oil all around the inside of the mold to prevent sticking
Open a Jell-O packet into a large bowl and pour hot water over, mixing until fully dissolved, at least 3 min.
Pour mixture carefully into the molds using a small funnel until it slightly reaches the top of the mold.
Place in the refrigerator for 3 hours until firm.
Unmold and enjoy!!
SARA CLUGAGE (she/her) practices art and writing that focuses on political issues in craft and food, recently centered on a series of salon dinners that examine economic models in art history. She is the editor-in-chief of Dilettante Army (an online journal for visual culture and critical theory), an organizer for the Wikipedia campaign Art+Feminism, and core faculty for the MA program in Critical Craft Studies at Warren Wilson College. She serves as a trustee for the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. She is currently eating the braised lamb shanks with peanut sauce from Toni Tipton-Martin's cookbook Jubilee, lord it's good.
COREY JENNINGS (he/him) is the developer of the "no sleep, no problem" internal life coach technique and author of several Target credit card applications. He is currently working at CTB and freelancing as a VHS to DVD converter for hire. He is currently on a steady diet of baked rigatoni — recipe c/o the author’s flap of Rich Dad, Poor Dad — and hermit bars.
BETTINA MAKALINTAL (she/her) is a Filipino American writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently a staff writer at Vice, where she covers food and culture. She is currently eating watermelon radishes and labne on toast. More generally, she is usually eating some combination of eggs or tofu; crispy, spicy sauce; and rice or toast.
KIKI CHEUNG (she/her) is a self-taught baker and also the founder of Murder Cake, a cake studio based in Hong Kong. She is currently eating veggie Yakisoba noodles with a lot chopped vegetable. She is used to adding in-proportional broccoli and carrot to make each bite so fresh and healthy!
RAFI ZIMMERMAN (he/him) is a chef currently residing in Portland, Maine where he works at CTB. Originally from Pennsylvania, he is passionate about Peruvian food, cats, and crafts. He is currently eating a pastie pocket filled with Polish meat.