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Break Out the Mold: the History and Art of Sculpting with Food

Geletin salad with eggs, ham and vegetables on a plate
Savory Jell-O salad with ham, eggs, and vegetables. Photo ©

I Can’t Believe It’s Actually Butter!

If you’ve ever attended a state fair and marveled at the udderly amazing butter sculptures, you may have asked yourself: How did the artist capture all that intricate detail in a dairy? Why did they decide to sculpt Elvis out of butter in the first place? From gummy worms and chocolate Easter bunnies to cakes that look like real objects, sculpted and molded foods date as far back as ancient Babylon where food molds have been unearthed by archeologists.

Butter sculpture of a cow at the Iowa state fair
Butter sculpture of a cow at 2022 Iowa state fair. Image by Carol VanHook from Altoona, Iowa, United States, via Wikimedia Commons

Moo-ve over Martha Stewart!

Throughout the ages, the concept of molding food has taken (ahem) ‘shape’ in various ways. During the Renaissance, for example, nothing said ‘royal banquet fit for a king’ like an elaborately hand-carved butter centerpiece.

While we now buy milk at our local grocery store, for centuries people bought dairy products directly from farmers. By the 18th and 19th centuries, when purchasing at centralized markets became more commonplace, dairy farmers needed a way to differentiate their products from their competitors. In Northern Europe, they began pressing freshly churned butter into carved wooden molds bearing their unique mark. These molds were not only decorative, but also helped customers to identify a local farmer’s “butter brand”.

antique butter mold
Wood-carved butter mold. Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons

Not to be outdone, American butter was often molded into whimsical shapes like flowers, farm animals, wildlife and even pineapples, which were expensive and hard to come, thus a status symbol. In those days, if you couldn’t get your hands on a real pineapple, butter molded into the shape of one was the next best thing!

By the late Victorian era, food molds became increasingly popular. Originally carved from wood, they were later made of copper (and even later, ceramic). Molded ice cream treats were also popularized during this time and were made in all manner of flavors including cucumber. Food coloring and artificial flavoring started to be added to foods to boost their appeal. Cook books were even written on the subject, such as Agnes Marshall’s (now titled) Ices and Creams — still in print today!

Victorian Ice Cream video from Absolute History
Victorian Ice Cream video from Absolute History

“Wobbling Jewel of Domestic Achievement”

Before the turn of the 20th century, gelatin was used in molded food dishes. In the beginning, however, rendering gelatin was a very laborious and time-consuming process. Gelatin-based foods were reserved only for the wealthy elite with staff to prepare such a delicacy. As the Industrial Revolution transformed the American economy facilitated by the rise of railroads and factory production, the food system of the past was radically reshaped. Cooking with gelatin moved from the palace kitchen to the suburban kitchen.

“. . . few foods can tell us more about life in 20th-century America than the wobbling jewel of domestic achievement: the Jell-O salad”

— Serious Eats

Jell-O recipe book cover
Cover, “Quick, Easy Jell-O Wonder Dishes: Entrees Relishes Salads Desserts”, via Wikimedia Commons

“H-E-L-L-O, J-E-L-L-O!”

In 1897, carpenter and cough-syrup maker Pearle Waite and his wife May trademarked a gelatin dessert they called “Jell-O”. They created the concoction by adding strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon flavoring to sugar and granulated gelatin (which had been patented in 1845). Two years later, they sold the brand to the Genesee Pure Food Company for $450 (roughly $11,000 today). By 1930, Jell-O came into vogue and was featured in congealed cuisine recipes including ingredients like fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and even cooked pasta! (Bon appetit?) In 1934, Post introduced the “J-E-L-L-O” jingle as part of a memorable marketing campaign by Young & Rubicam. Today the Jell-O brand is owned by Kraft Heinz.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Jell-O wobbled its way into pop culture and suburban kitchens everywhere. Considered innovative and mess-free, it allowed middle-class housewives to aspire to greater social status for pennies on the dollar, and to serve “lighter” fare while stretching their budgets — and their leftovers.

“Jellied salads, unlike tossed ones, were mess-free, never transgressing the border of the plate”

— Serious Eats

jello salad dessert recipe image
Illustrated recipe for ‘Under the Sea Salad’ via Wikimedia Commons

Sorry, Jell-O, You Had Your Shot

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Jell-O salad was ubiquitous, with recipes appearing in finer cookbooks and high-society magazines, but by the 80s, they fell out of favor and were, perhaps ironically, labeled “unsophisticated”. From the 90s until today, Jell-O is primarily marketed as a children’s food — or perhaps an ingredient on a frat house’s party supply list — think Jell-O shots!

But the story doesn’t end there. Even though Jell-O salads are a thing of the past, food as a medium for sculpture is very much alive and well.

“a once-loved dish safely congealed in the decorative mold of history.”

— from Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro

Oldies, But Foodies

As a child of the 70s, I fondly remember Grandmama’s Elsie’s Jell-O fruit salads at family holiday meals. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas she would lovingly combine canned fruit and Cool Whip with red or green Jell-O into a bundt cake mold. As a dessert, these salads were colorful and festive . . . and pretty darn tasty.

If you ask me, it’s high time to bring it back! Whatever is old is new again, as they say, so whether it be a Jell-O salad or Jell-O shots, why not bust out the bundt cake mold or the shot glasses and create your own wobbly party-in-a-glass this holiday season!

jello shots
Jell-O shots. Photo ©



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Hi Everybody! I’m Roberta Morris, Founder and Creative Director of Leave It to ’Berta. Read my take on all things colorful and creative.