The Ribbon Jello Story

Ribbon JelloI figured that since I have a blog now, and it’s kind of anonymous, it might be fun to start putting up some of the stories from my life. This is a story I’ve told a thousand times. If you’ve heard it, that means you know me, and I’d like you to go away now. And for God’s sake do not read my twitter. If you don’t understand why, please read this letter.

The Ribbon Jello story starts on July 3, 1999. I was between wives and girlfriends, so as single men are prone to do, I spent a lot of time at my attractive neighbor’s house. I was over there on the day before Independence Day, and she was talking about salmon and peas.

It seems that salmon and peas is one of those mostly-forgotten American traditions, dating back to near the beginning of the republic. Well I didn’t know about that, but I did know our own family tradition for the 4th of July: Ribbon Jello.

We used to have a picnic every year on the 4th, and my aunts and uncles and cousins would come, and we’d swim, and eat, and whatnot. And my Aunt Ginny was responsible for the Ribbon Jello. Well, she was, until one year she called my mother in tears, and declared that she wasn’t going to make the fucking Ribbon Jello any more. Then it became my mother’s job.

Back in the 70s, there were not so many colors of Jello available as there are today. So although the idea was to make a patriotic red, white, and blue creation, what we actually had was red, yellow, and green.We basically celebrated the birth of the USA with an homage to the flag of Bolivia. *shrug*

So after talking to my neighbor, my mission was clear. I needed to make Ribbon Jello for our neighborhood 4th celebration. I hurried home, and called Mom to ask her how it was done. She was, of course, neck deep in the process of making Ribbon Jello herself when I called. But, being a mother of good breeding, she took the time to fill me in.

The first thing I needed was something in which to make the Jello. Traditionally, one uses a 14×9 clear glass pan. That lets you see the layers through the edges, which is super cool. But, being a bachelor, who gave absolutely everything I owned (except my house) to my first wife, I had no such pan. I did have a 14×9 metal pan. So I figured, I could use that instead, then flip the Jello out to serve it. This was my first mistake.

Ribbon Jello is, of course, created in layers. You pour each, let it set up, and then pour the next, and so on. Ideally, you should leave yourself a few days, so each layer is completely solid before you pour scalding hot Jello on top of it. When you don’t have a few days, there are some tricks you can use to speed up the process.

One trick is to dissolve the next layer’s Jello powder in hot water just after you pour the previous layer. In two hours, when the previous layer is set, you add the cold water, mix it up, and pour this layer over the back of a spoon onto the one that just set up. Two hours isn’t enough time for crystallization to start, but it is plenty of time to cool from scalding to just warm, so the lower layer doesn’t dissolve.

So I was using this trick, and got exactly halfway through the Jello layering process, when I noticed that the layer I just poured seemed awfully thin. Indeed, it was only half the correct thickness, because I had forgotten to mix in the cup of cold water before I poured it. So, thinking quickly, I got a cup of cold water, added it to the top of the in-progress Ribbon Jello, and mixed it around with a spoon. It appeared to work. This, however, was my second mistake.

At this point, you may be wondering about what the heck goes into the white layers. Well, when Mom used to make it, that was lemon Jello and vanilla yogurt. Personally, I use Knox unflavored gelatin, dissolved in a cup of boiling water, and added to a 6oz vanilla yogurt. It tastes about the same, and has the distinct advantage of being white.

So I proceeded to lay in the remaining Jello, every two hours, and let the whole thing set up overnight in the fridge.

The next day, about noon, I pulled it out and rubbed the outside of the metal baking pan with a warm washcloth, ran a knife around the outside edge, and flipped it onto a big platter. I lifted the baking pan off cleanly. Yes! This is going to work!

No! This is not going to work!

The Jello immediately started to trade height for width and length. It was making a slow progression from three dimensions to just two. Being quick on my feet, I slammed the baking pan down onto the Jello and stopped its expansion in its tracks. I scraped away the outermost fringe of Jello, which I figured might make a great snack later.

OK, no problem, I can just bring it over like this, and do a big reveal when I get there.

So I headed on over to the neighbor’s, and the picnic table was all set up. Nice plastic checkered table cloth and everything. But no people. I figured they must be inside, so I set my platter carefully at the corner of the table, and lifted the pan. And it held! Whew. So it looked great. Just like I remembered. As it turns out, this was my third mistake.

So I headed up into the house, where everyone was getting wine, and we chatted and hugged and did all that stuff you have to do in the suburbs. We eventually came out and down on the table, there were not one, but two ribbon Jellos! One on the platter where I left it, and the other making a slow, steady march across the table.

It seems the tensile strength of the central layer had been compromised by the water incident. Which, combined with a picnic table that wasn’t quite level, resulted in a sheer force which the Jello structure was unable to withstand. The upper half of the Jello had pulled loose from its moorings, and was making an extremely slow bee-line for the opposite corner of the table.

I handed my wine to my hosts, and dashed down to the table, where I grabbed the platter, and put it in the path of the approaching Jello-animate. I slowly walked the top layers back into place.

We had dessert first.

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