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Two weeks ago, I was invited to what turned out to be one of the most creative and flavourful experiences of my New York sojourn: the third edition of the Jell-O Mold Competition, a creative and culinary contest that invites participants to let their imaginations run wild and to explore “the everyday uses” of gelatine – one of the most surprising, inventive, malleable, wobbly, stretchy and resistant foods ever.
A proper symbol of American culture and cuisine, gelatine was created towards the end of the 1800s by Pearl B. Wait who combined a product he was working on for coughs, with a fruit dessert that his wife had cooked. Years later, under President Regan, Jelly Belly candies became an official welcome gift during diplomatic meetings. The same president, who famously declared himself a huge fan of jellybeans, asked the Jelly Belly brand to create a blue jellybean so that he could have all the colours of the American flag in his candy jar.
But don’t be mislead: if the word gelatine evokes only the idea of old-fashioned desserts in standard moulds, or else elaborate delicacies from the gourmet tradition, it’s time to reconsider.
The Jell-O Mold Competition, organised by an artists’ collective in Brooklyn – one design’s contemporary hot spots where ateliers and workshops abound in all kinds of disciplines – as a moment of pure fun with one of the most affordable ingredients one can buy.
As the contest’s presentation explains: «At the most basic level, designers reconfigure objects to bring out their aesthetic, utilitarian, and/or meaningful qualities. These objects, more often than not, are for necessary, everyday use and nothing is more necessary than food, nothing more everyday than Jell-O».
«In these somber times of restraint, of reigning in and reallocating, we need a resurgence of steady wobble that won’t let us down. In short, it’s time for a comeback of the Jell-O proportions of old: soaring heights, strange colors, object suspension! Jell-O is the perfect medium for design reinvention given its versatility, economy, and availability. To this end, the Gowanus Studio Space is asking designers to take Jell-O out of the cafeteria and break the mold, as it were, on Jell-O molds».
Judging the twenty or so participants, who are all experimenting with unusual colours, shapes and tastes, were Allan Chochinov a partner of Core 77, Emily Elsen, the founder of the stor Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Josee LePage, founder of Bondtoo, and Keith Ozar, the marketing and event coordinator of Makerbot.
The jury unanimously awarded the first prize to the work Jelly Fishin' of the designer Peter Pracilio, who created raspberry-flavoured fishing worms to enjoy with an exquisite cocoa powder and little fish-shaped skewers in mixed fruit flavours. A perfect example of taste, design, and product presentation – but also personal talent. Peter even showed his masterpiece dressed up as a fisherman with overalls and yellow rubber boots!
The Winner for Creativity award was given to Team Urban Legend composed of Colleen Whiteley, Eric Whiteley, Matthew Keegan, and Brandon Hodges– who presented the project Perpetuating the legend of Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen head, in Jell-O: a delicious lemon meringue gelatine to be eaten frozen and which was presented while still steaming after being left at -80° in liquid nitrogen.
Two projects took their inspiration from science, with a nod to Little Shop of Horrors: Dentures by Kyla Blakney and Suzan Akpinar (Cooper-Hewitt Design Scholars), an even too-realistic set of dentures in strawberry and coconut gelatine was the Winner for Structural Integrity, and the The Dawn of Jell-O by Mike Glaser and Carla Diana, a soup made with primordial molluscs flavoured with nori & cantrell mushrooms, roasted beef, sweet sake, almond, milk and honey. A proper experiment in taste!
Decidedly more unnerving and “existential”, was the work Where Do Eggs Come From? (Special Jury's Bad-Ass Award) by designer Hugh Hayden with a hen and her infinite production of eggs. In gelatine, obviously.
The Winner for Aesthetics went to the project Esperell-O by Leslie Finnie,Makayla Rodriguez, and Priscilla Acevedo: a witty and playful way to enjoy espresso, with an edible cup.
The playful and interactive project, The Resistor Jeltone, (Winner for Creativity) by Ranjit Bhatnagar, Astrida Valigorsky, Mimi Hui, and Catarina Mota, was a true experiment in domestic engineering: a toy piano that really works, with keys in real gelatine.
And to finish, in my personal opinion the tastiest work was definitely Jell-Obama by Gelology, a half-bust sculpture of the President made from salted caramel chocolate pudding, Mr. Obama’s favourite dessert. A mouth-watering way to impress your friends. The recipe can be found on theGelology website.
And after the awards were given out, there was one remaining order: to eat all the gelatine in the least amount of time.