Our National Dessert

THE NIGHT THEY invented champagne, they probably weren't prospecting for a new Jell-O flavor. But this week Sparkling White Grape gelatin, "The Champagne of Jell-O," will be uncorked at a New York celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of Jell-O. Champagne Jell-O tastes more like a grape version of Tang than Veuve Clicquot, but never mind. With more than a million boxes sold every day, Jell-O remains unrivaled as the chief icon of American home cooking. Whether we grow up on teiglach, tarte aux pommes, gulab jaman or brownies, Americans share at least one bedrock culinary value: we're devoted to Jell-O. And we like red best.

But why Jell-O? And why us? Jell-O first won hearts and minds for its ease of preparation a quality much in demand wherever women are insecure about their cooking. The advertising addressed this issue almost from the start. "How often some ingredient is forgotten or not rightly proportioned and the dessert spoiled." ran a 1904 ad. "This will never occur if you use Jell-O." Second, Jell-O is always and surpassingly sweet, which is the way most Americans like most foods to taste. This was never a country where a bit of perfectly aged cheese could be seriously in the running as dessert. Finally, a dish of Jell-O has children written all over it, usually in Cool Whip. Quiche may have its moment in the sun, but throughout our culinary history, the keepers are kids' foods chocolate pudding, macaroni and cheese, Coke.

The timing was right, too. Jell-O came on the market just as women were gearing up, tentatively, for a new era. Home life at the turn of the century was still aglow with sentimental value, but the food industry was eager to impress homemakers with the miracles possible when science (that is, packaged foods) freed their kitchens from the dowdy trappings of the past. Knox's powdered gelatin had been around since 1894, but cooks were using it mostly to make the same molded dishes they made previously with sheet gelatin. Jell-O, from the Genesee Pure Food Go., was different. Jell-O arrived in flavors. And as a Genesee recipe booklet exulted, "What flavors! They come from fresh ripe fruits-crimson strawberries, luscious raspberries, great gold oranges, pale, tart lemons, cherries bursting with sweetness!" Suddenly, what had been merely an ingredient became an end in itself. When the fancy mold slid off, there shimmered tradition in the shape of novelty, elegance in the shape of efficiency and, most important, dessert in the shape of salad. That clinched it.

It's not that Americans carried any grudge against greens, but the nation that invented the frosting sandwich wasn't about to miss out on a salad that starred sugar and marshmallows. Jell-O desserts, of course, starred the same ingredients, so it was possible to serve the identical Jell-O preparation either in place of a green salad or at the end of the meal another reason for fans to marvel at Jell-O's versatility. During the decades that followed Jell-O's debut, it was subjected to just about everything a food could endure: it was creamed, whipped, layered, cubed and carved; it was molded in a series of funnels and stuck together to look like a Christmas tree; it was molded in an empty banana skin to look like the banana. But not until the salad course did Jell-O make its uniquely American contribution to world cuisine: the first salad to be utterly sui generis. Nothing identified it unless it happened to be served on a lettuce leaf: Jell-O in a large, flat layer studded with canned fruit and marshmallows, topped with whipped cream, the whipped cream topped with grated cheese. Jell-O mixed with marshmallows, whipped cream and butter-mint candies. Jell-O layered over Cool Whip and cream cheese, with raspberries, in a crushed-pretzel crust. Under-the-Sea Salad, invented in the '20s and still one of the company's most requested recipes, has pear halves peeking from layers of green Jell-O and cream cheese.

Friends of Jell-O who gather this week for the birthday bash will be treated to many of these legendary dishes. Bill Cosby, Jell-O's longtime pitchman, will perform; and attendees will get a preview of the exhibits soon to be displayed at a new Jell-O museum in LeRoy, N.Y., where the product was born. But you don't have to go to the party to raise a glass to Jell-O. Thanks to the new flavor. you can raise a glass of Jell-O and offer a toast to everything sweet about America.