An American dream gone wrong
JELL-O GIRLS by Allie Rowbottom. Published by Little, Brown and Company. 288 pages. $14.99 retail.
When one thinks of Jell-O, it conjures up the inevitable sweet treat that so many of us enjoyed as young children or a tasty pudding pop on a hot summer’s day. The carefully crafted, and highly successful, advertising campaign all but stated that Jell-O represents America, or at the very least Americana. Having Norman Rockwell create the iconic advertising artwork went a long way toward perpetuating this idea.
In the 1980s, Jell-O sales were given an unexpected, and certainly dubious, boost with the rise in popularity of alcoholic Jell-O shots, which became – and remain – a party staple, which yours truly can certainly attest to, having indulged in my first (but not last) Jell-O shots in college.
Of course, entire generations remember those long-running, award-winning T.V. commercials in which Bill Cosby, seemingly the personification of paternal benevolence, promoted the product. That Cosby’s run as the Jell-O spokesperson lasted nearly three decades is a bitter irony, although not the first – or the last – to be found in Allie Rowbottom’s heartfelt memoir, Jell-O Girls.
This nonfiction volume, however, is not so much concerned with the corporate history of Jell-O, although that figures to some extent in the narrative. Rather, it’s a deeply personal and frequently painful journey that’s all the more heartrending because it happens to be true.
Rowbottom is a direct descendant of the Woodward family, which purchased the patent for Jell-O in 1899 for $450 – not an insignificant sum at that time. Before they sold their interest – Jell-O is now owned by Kraft Foods – the family saw its investment mushroom into millions. To compound the old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness, for Rowbottom’s family – particularly her grandmother Midge and mother Mary – it paved the way for misery. It is their stories that Rowbottom concentrates on in Jell-O Girls.
The town of LeRoy, New York, where Jell-O was headquartered for years, remains synonymous with the product, even as sales and the town’s fortunes have waned over the years, due in no small part to claims that it’s not necessarily healthy for you. Indeed, a mystery illness struck several young girls in LeRoy in the early part of this century – a manifestation of what is euphemistically called the “Jell-O Curse,” perhaps?
For years, Mary had drilled into Allie’s head the idea of the curse – much as Mary’s mother Midge had drilled it into hers. But as Allie delves into her mother’s history – and, by direct osmosis, her own – the idea of a curse proves perhaps to be well-founded. The author lays bare the details of a dysfunctional family that seemingly had everything, but it simply wasn’t enough.
Long after the family’s financial stake in Jell-O ended, its specter still loomed large, even when not spoken of. When Mary is hospitalized for terminal cancer and has difficulty eating, she is – not surprisingly – served Jell-O. It’s almost as if the product remains on the periphery of their lives, almost taunting them, reminding them even in their weakest moments of its inescapable influence. It’s no exaggeration to say that anyone over the age of three knows what Jell-O is – and, more likely than not, loves it.
Rowbottom is able to deftly avoid descending into melodrama, although the story would certainly make for a quintessential Hollywood soap opera. She brings a clear-eyed clarity to the story, incorporating both a conciliatory and a cathartic tone that keeps the story on track throughout, even in its darkest moments – of which there are many. Jell-O Girls is a fascinating story, and sometimes a hopeful one, but it’s not always a happy one. Coming as this does on the heels of Bill Cosby’s conviction for aggravated sexual assault (he’s due to be sentenced in September) – which is only briefly discussed in the book – one simply can’t think of Jell-O quite the same way again. The bitter has overtaken the sweet.
For more information about Jell-O Girls, visit the website.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.