Rowbottom chronicles her relationship to a legendary American food brand and the dark underside of its history.
Jell-O was the author’s “birthright.” Purchased by her mother’s great-great-great-uncle in 1899 for $450, the company was sold for $67 million two decades later. Jell-O gave the maternal side of Rowbottom's family unprecedented access to money, privilege, and power. At the same time, the wealth also seemed to bring family members “all manner of…misfortune,” including alcoholism, cancer, and suicide. Her mother, Mary, believed that her own problems and health crises had come about as a result of this family curse, so she “rarely ate the stuff.” The author begins the story with her grandmother Midge, who dreamed of becoming a journalist but instead found herself saddled with a traditional family life—which Jell-O celebrated in its many advertisements—that left her feeling unfulfilled. Growing up during the 1950s and ’60s, her daughter Mary longed for life as an artist. However, the pressures for her to conform to traditional female roles ate away at her resolve, pushed her into a series of unhealthy relationships, and destroyed her well-being. Determined to understand both the Jell-O curse and her mother’s emotionally fraught past, Rowbottom researched not only her family’s troubled history, but also the history of Jell-O itself. She looked at how ad campaigns throughout the 20th century used Jell-O to prop up ideals of womanhood that either enforced ideas about women as domestic caretakers or made them feel guilty about “careers outside the home.” The author also explores the medically inexplicable ailments that not only befell her mother, but also—as late as 2011— young girls living in LeRoy, New York, the birthplace of Jell-O. Rowbottom delivers a moving memoir of a daughter seeking to understand her mother, family, and the place of women in American society, and the narrative also serves as a thoughtful, up-close-and-personal feminist critique of a cultural icon.
A book brimming with intelligence and compassion.