The stars were brightly shining in Durham, North Carolina, when three women obsessed with Jell-O mounted a pop-up museum exhibition of molded foods. Your grandmama’s green “congealed salad” was one thing — but you’ve never seen the likes of these creations from chefs, home cooks, and one punk-rock bass player.
By Kate Medley, Emily Wallace & Kate Elia
There once was a large orange aspic
Whose sagging was really quite drastic
The diners all giggled
As it joggled and jiggled
But that aspic proved rather elastic.
Durham, North Carolina, Mayor Steve Schewel
In his role as judge of the “O Moldy Night” Shimmys
J-E-L-L-O can’t be stopped.
It just keeps on jiggling — foremost in the cafeteria canon and high priestess of the K&Ws, Piccadillys, and Morrison’s. It’s a salve for the sick, cut into cubes and served on a hospital tray, and the gem of a lunch box, worthy of song. Aspic was the centerpiece at medieval feasts, presented to royalty with elaborate garnishes, and is the gel of community cookbooks. It’s a gag (take Jim Halpert sealing Dwight Shrute’s stapler in a Jell-O mold on “The Office”).
But Jell-O is also serious — a thing Kentucky native Lora Smith argues made the modern mountain woman.
And damn if it ain’t pretty.
As for the three of us, our relationship with molds began with the campy — ’70s recipes and good “mold-fashioned” wordplay: A birthday cake with the slogan "I'm old" started our endeavour. But our obsession with the molded eventually expanded to reflect our combined careers in art and food. We wondered about the rise and demise of shaped and gelatinous foods and became enamored by their aesthetics. So, what began as a years-long joke to elevate aspic to a pedestal eventually solidified (as gelatin is wont to do) into a pop-up museum project deemed "O Moldy Night," which displayed the works of some 40 chefs, home cooks, grandmas, and artists at The Durham Hotel in our North Carolina town. Materials ranged from tomatoes and carrots to pig’s feet, chicken tenders, and crushed pineapple.
As entrant Ashley Melzer put it, “Blame it all on my roots, I showed up with fruits.”
“Jell-O by the Sea”
Kate Fulbright, a home cook in Durham, North Carolina
Medium: Agar agar, Jell-O, coconut milk, Swedish Fish, graham crackers, sprinkles
Inspired by an episode of “Rugrats,” I set out to make a grand, wiggly-jiggly mold of the ocean. Using Swedish fish to represent ocean life, and a combination of tapioca balls and zigzags representing bubbles and kelp, I suspended this all in layers of agar agar (a gelatin derived from algae). Crushed graham crackers and sprinkles adorning the edge as sand and seashells completed the tableau.
Matt Neal, chef at Neal’s Deli, Carrboro, North Carolina
Medium: Chuck roast, oxtails, pig’s feet, calves’ foot, onion, carrot, celery, spices
I wanted to make an old Southern recipe from my father, Bill Neal’s, cookbook that I had never tried before called Boeuf en Daube Glace. It's basically a big beef aspic. As long as you have several pig's feet, a calves' foot, and a couple pounds of oxtail, there’s no need to supplement with store-bought gelatin. It's delicious and good for you, but very out-of-fashion. My mother Moreton Neal’s family in Brookhaven, Mississippi, still serves a lot of congealed salads at get-togethers. These salads are generally fruit-based, simple, and only mildly sweetened. I could stare at them for hours.
Lauren Hart, a home cook from Hillsborough, North Carolina
Medium: Sweet tea, gelatin, Bojangles' Chicken Supremes
Bojangles’, the orange-roofed, fast-food fried chicken sanctuary founded in Charlotte, saturates North Carolina’s landscape, and it serves large numbers of chicken tenders to the citizens therein. Inspired by 1960s advertisements featuring savory salads in celery-flavored Jell-O, this dish aims to encapsulate the Bojangles’ kingdom by suspending Chicken Supremes, green beans, and lemon slices within a gelatin of sweet tea. Finally, the dish is garnished with mashed potato florets. The result is meant to be at once magnetic and repelling, and is a nod to my sweetie's self-conscious love of greasy food eaten on the road.
“She Don’t Use Jelly”
Logan Atkinson, pastry chef at The Lakewood, Durham, North Carolina
Medium: Tangerine, white chocolate, green tea
The concept of molded foods immediately took me back to elementary school. I have vivid memories of walking home after school with friends, racing one another to see who could eat a snack pack of Jell-O through a straw the quickest. Those memories combined with the lyrics of the Flaming Lips’s "She Don't Use Jelly," from that same era in my life, provided the inspiration for these individual molded tangerine desserts.
“Big in Japan”
Billy Cotter, chef/co-owner of Dashi, Durham, North Carolina
Medium: Dashi aspic with Japan all up in it
After visiting the sprawling Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan, I was inspired by the incredible varieties of fish that I had never even heard of — much less seen or eaten. In thinking about this mold, I decided to capture the essence of the ocean by starting with gelatinous Dashi broth, which is basically the mother sauce of Japanese cuisine. After filling a fish-shaped copper mold with this broth, I proceeded to put Japan all up in it.
Daniel Benjamin, pastry chef/owner of lucettegrace, Raleigh, North Carolina
Medium: Chocolate, pistachio, apricot, almond
Making pastry professionally has little in common with how it is commonly portrayed on television. Pastry is full of tedious, monotonous tasks, where muscle memory takes over and the mind can wander. Taormina, Sicily, lies with the looming presence of Mt. Etna to its west and the refreshing waters of the Ionian Sea to its east. Sometimes, while lining innumerable tart shells or piping scores of macarons, I return to Taormina.
“Lady Edison Pork Jelly Salad”
Aaron Benjamin, chef/owner of Gocciolina, Durham, North Carolina
Medium: Lady Edison country ham filled with celery, green onions, and cured pork shoulder; peas & carrots, chicken broth, gelatin, Calabrian peppers
Lady Edison Pork Jelly Salad is not really a salad, but it does contain pickle juice. Its regal look highlights the elegance of the ham, while the peas and carrots remind me of the ’70s and my grandmother. It should be enjoyed with a strong gin cocktail.
“Corned Ham Yakamein”
Bill Smith, chef at Crook’s Corner, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Medium: Pork gelatin, noodles, boiled eggs, vegetables
This dish resulted from a vortex of menu events at Crook’s Corner. Corned hams, a favorite on our menu, make excellent gelatin when baked. And yakamein, a beef noodle soup common to New Orleanians as a hangover cure, was one of the soups on our menu at the time. These items combined with the thought of sliced hard boiled eggs floating in aspic was irresistible.
“Nothing Says I Love You Like Green Jell-O”
Justin K. Dillree of Whole Foods Market, Raleigh, North Carolina
Medium: Green Jell-O, maraschino cherries, carrots, crushed Pineapple, heavy cream
Green Jell-O is widely popular in my native Utah, enjoyed at a myriad of occasions ranging from funerals to weddings. I chose this lime-flavored gem because it is a special part of my own family memories. As a kid, I was given green Jell-O for family dessert, to cure any ailments, or just for fun. My mother’s favorite preparation includes Jello-O with carrots, pineapple, cherries, and whipped cream. I’ll always remember the motherly love I felt when served this weirdly special treat.
“A Mold for the Nuevo South”
Sandra Gutierrez, author of “The New Southern-Latino Table,” Cary, North Carolina
Medium: Gelatin, avocado, cheese, onion, pimientos, spices, chicken broth, lime, chiles, salt
The Latin influence in Southern foodways is measurably growing, and gelatin molds are a shared culinary tradition between these cultures. Upon my discovery that these ingredients and techniques continue to blend in kitchens all over the South, I created this recipe to showcase the marriage of two favorite spreads: pimiento cheese and guacamole. Not surprisingly, they are sensational when tasted together.
“Southern-Style Stained Glass”
Fran Castillo, a home cook in Durham, North Carolina
Medium: Pork ears and neck bones, pork gelatin, vinegar, chili flakes, salt
My grandmother, Elizabeth Williams, a preacher’s daughter who married in her teens, let nothing go to waste. Old dresses became quilts, soap scraps were pressed into cups for further use, animals were slaughtered and every bit was used. This piece was inspired by the souse my grandmother regularly made from pork scraps to be eaten atop saltines. The meat suspended in its natural gelatin reminded me of a beautiful stained glass.
“Jiggle Gin Fizz”
Erin Durkin, a home cook in Durham, North Carolina
Medium: Gin, lemons, gelatin
When challenged with this moldy opportunity, I wanted to present something both kitschy and elegant. Gin is my favorite spirit. Using Durham Distillery’s Conniption Gin, I fashioned this high-class cocktail into a Jell-O shot.
Julienne Alexander, a home cook in Durham, North Carolina
Medium: Beans, avocado, dairy, onions, accoutrement
“Bean-O” was inspired by the beautiful form that refried beans hold when emptied from a can. Recreating that savory starch from scratch was surprisingly easy and, as it turns out, a lot of the other elements often served as part of a seven-layer bean dip — whipped guacamole, sour cream, thick salsas — are jiggly yet form-holding. So, really, in the end, this bean dip mandala sort of made itself.
“I Would Heart for You to Trotter on Over and Vent Your Spleen”
Laura Ballance, bass player for Superchunk and home cook in Durham
Medium: Pork heart, pork liver, pork spleen, pork foot, pork belly, pork tail, bread, parsley, leek, spices
As an enthusiast of eating meat, at some point it occurred to me that that it is rude not to eat the whole animal. I have not entirely lived up to this idea. In college, I learned about Kuru (the disease that strikes cannibals who eat contaminated human brain tissue) in anthropology class, and thus I refuse to eat brain. I hear you can use them to cure hides though. Maybe one day…
Laird Dixon and Sam Suchoff of The Pig, a barbecue joint in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Our buddies from the North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association raise their pigs on pasture and grow their own non-GMO feed. Rufus Brown cures out these hams the same way his father did, who cured out hams the same way his uncle did. The result is Lady Edison Extra Fancy Country Ham. What better way to celebrate a ham that I don’t make than to have someone else create a chocolate mold of it? My buddy Laird Dixon is an artist and aspiring chocolatier. Cheers to good buddies!