Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor in 1899 for $450, then sold it in the 1920s for $67 million — nearly a billion dollars in today’s money. Lately, Allie’s been obsessed with how all that Jell-O money shaped America, and her own family. It’s funded generations of Rowbottom women, including Allie, but it’s also been a shadow they can't escape. Jell-O became a twisted metaphor for all the bad things that happened to them, to the point that they started to wonder: Are we cursed?
Please note: This episode deals with eating disorders. If you or someone you know is affected by an eating disorder, you can get more information from the National Eating Disorders Association online or by calling their helpline: 800-931-2237.
This episode originally aired on September 24, 2018, and came to us from the podcast Household Name. It was produced by Claire Rawlinson, Sarah Wyman, Dan Bobkoff, and Anna Mazarakis, with help from Anne Saini, Aviva DeKornfeld, and Dan Pashman. Peter Clowney and Gianna Palmer edited the episode, and Casey Holford and John DeLore contributed sound design and original music, with additional engineering by Dan Dzula. The Sporkful production team now includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O’Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O’Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Kenny" by Hayley Briasco
- "Asphalt Gods" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Private Detective" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Soul Good" by Lance Conrad.
- "Legend" by Erick Anderson
Dan Pashman: Please note, this episode deals with eating disorders.
Allie Rowbottom: My sort of odd and tangential claim to fame here is that my great, great, great uncle by marriage, Order Francis Woodward, bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor in 1899 for $450 and then sold it for 67 million in 1920s.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. Allie Rowbottom is an heir to the Jell-O fortune. That 67 million that her great-great-great uncle made in the ‘20s? It’s worth nearly a billion dollars today. That money has filtered down through Allie’s sprawling family over generations. And lately, Allie has become obsessed with Jell-O. How Jell-O has shaped America with messages like this ...
[CLIP OF JELL-O AD]
CLIP (JELL-O AD 1): What’s for dessert, when a spouse needs cheer?
CLIP (JELLO-O AD 2): The men in my life swear by it.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 3): Ask any little girl, when it comes to entertaining, there’s nothing quite like Jell-O.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 4):There’s always room for Jell-O.
Dan Pashman: And Allie’s been thinking about how that Jell-O money shaped her family. Jell-O funded Allie’s grandmother and mother, and now it’s funding Allie. But it’s also been a shadow that they can't escape. Jell-O became a twisted metaphor for all the bad things that happened in their lives to the point that they started to wonder: Are we cursed?
Dan Pashman: To tell the story, I'm going to turn the mic over to reporter Dan Bobkoff…
Dan Bobkoff: In the late 1600s, a guy in France boiled some animal bones and skin and figured out how to extract the collagen. The jiggly clear substance became known as gelatin. Jump ahead 200 years and a self-taught engineer named Peter Cooper, turned it into a powder that became a dessert when you added hot water. But it didn't catch on and he started working on glue instead. A half century later at cough syrup maker in Leroy, New York, branched into foods and added flavors like strawberry to the instant gelatin.
Dan Bobkoff: His wife named it Jell-O, but he couldn't get people to buy it either. So in 1899, he gave up and sold it to someone who finally turned it into a hit. That guy was Allie's great great great uncle. You know, the one who bought Jell-O for a few hundred and sold it for millions? From that point on Allie's family was loaded, but they were never, again directly involved with Jell-O’s business or manufacturing.
Dan Bobkoff:For years, they stayed in jealous hometown, LeRoy, New York. This is where until the mid sixties, the Jell-O factory turned those bits of old bones into a shiny dessert. In that small town upstate, it was a Jell-O economy. The family's wealth put their name on buildings. Whenever one of their kids got sick, the local gossip pages would write about it. When it got cold out, a limousine would pick them up from school. Allie heard the stories as a child, third-hand, from her mother.
Allie Rowbottom: And I loved hearing about the light elements of those stories, the feasts, and servants, and butlers, and a limousine.
Dan Bobkoff: Allie's childhood was more station wagon than limousine, but that 1920s fortune still meant her mom didn't need a day job. And as Allie got older, she wanted to understand where she came from, where her money came from. And so she started with the earliest inheritor in her family line, her grandmother, Midge.
Allie Rowbottom: So Midge was the young woman growing up in Le Roy, New York. My mom did always say that she had a very soft, even tone and that she really rarely raised her voice, which seems in keeping with her character. I've read a lot of her letters and they're very restrained. She had brown hair, which she wore swept into a neat bun at the back of her head. And she wore very neat earrings, and very fashionable outfits for the time. A lot of sort of trim waists.
Dan Bobkoff: Midge’s Jell-O money helped make her life more exciting than the average married woman in the 1940s and ‘50s. She met and married her husband, Bob, during a stint as a reporter in Honolulu. Then the two lived in Lima, Peru, for several years, as he flew commercial planes around the world.
Allie Rowbottom: She had always wanted to travel and to write. And so the idea of living abroad with her dashing husband was, you know, obviously, really fetching.
Dan Bobkoff: But then she had kids and her adventures hit a dead end. She found herself feeling isolated in Lima. She didn't have the support and status she got in Le Roy from her place in the Jell-O royalty. So she and Bob left Lima behind and returned to their hometown, Jell-O’s hometown, Le Roy. In some ways it felt sort of like a let town. Le Roy was drab, suburban, and snowy, but it was the easier choice, the safe choice.
Allie Rowbottom: She was sort of a social butterfly. So she had a lot of girlfriends and acclimated.
Dan Bobkoff: Midge’s family was in Le Roy, her cousins, her aunt. And being close meant they'd make sure to get that inheritance.
Allie Rowbottom: So I think, you know, Midge made a sacrifice herself. She had wanted to travel. She had wanted to write, but moving back to Le Roy meant that she was in the society there.
Dan Bobkoff: Also, her life in Le Roy looked a lot like what Jell-O marketing promoted back then.
Allie Rowbottom: It was very wedded to the idea of the housewife and the strong American family, where daddy goes to work at 9:00 a.m. every morning and comes home and has a martini in the evening. And the kids all gather around the table. And it's happily ever after with a white picket fence.
Dan Bobkoff: Midge’s husband was more of a beer drinker than a martini kind of man. Midge would fetch him a bottle from the fridge when he got home every day, playing the role dutifully, if unhappily. Meanwhile, they're maid was in the kitchen, making dinner, sometimes pouring fruit into Jell-O molds.
Dan Bobkoff: Back then Jell-O’s makers wanted Americans to put all sorts of things into Jell-O.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 5): Onions, radishes, carrots, peas.
Dan Bobkoff: There was a Jell-O salad with Mayo and anchovies.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 7): Beans, lima and string.
Dan Bobkoff: A ham and celery loaf may with lime Jell-O.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 8): Bright, crisp vegetables in cool shimmering Jell-O. There’s a solid for ya!
Dan Bobkoff: What is going on? That's not even the worst of them.
Ruth Clark: It was prunes, unflavored gelatin, chili sauce, cottage cheese, mayo, and sweet pickles.
Dan Bobkoff: This is Ruth Clark. She runs a blog called Mid-Century Menu, that tests old recipes from the '50s and '60s.
Ruth Clark: Really, it was very soft and there, the only thing that was hard in it were chunks of sweet pickles. So otherwise everything's just kind of like glooping around in your mouth. It was very, very strange and very gross. It was like having a mouthful of silly putty.
Dan Bobkoff: This was definitely not the finest hour in the history of American food or American food marketing.
Dan Bobkoff: What was Jell-O saying to women at the same time that Midge was in Le Roy?
Allie Rowbottom: Ah, so much about where to stay physically, which is in the home.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 9): Too late to make dessert! Wait! It's not too late to make dessert ...
Allie Rowbottom: And how to make it in particular.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 9): Just add the milk and beat.
Allie Rowbottom: So I think, especially cause initially, Jell-O was this mystery food. It was a scientific experiment in a way.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 9): This terrific, new busy day dessert ready to eat.
Allie Rowbottom: Once we're talking about the '40s and '50s, we're really talking about time periods that privileged growth and innovation.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 9): Or let the children make it themselves. It's that easy ... [AD MUSIC]
Allie Rowbottom: And cleanliness. So old recipes might be seen as dirty.
CLIP (JELL-O AD 9): Creamy, nourishing, so delicious. J-E-L-L-O!
Dan Bobkoff: It's as though the whole marketing campaign for Jell-O recipes was basically, you can hide whatever you want in a Jell-O mold, old chicken, wilted lettuce, put it in some Jell-O. How nourishing.
Allie Rowbottom: Jell-O really fit well with that identity in part, because it literally is a food that you mold. So it encapsulates and contains what feel like messy ingredients, like shredded vegetables or leftovers or whatever. It can all go into the Jell-O and become neatly contained. And I think, you know, especially in an era of American history where we were really privileging sameness, a lot of people probably had to do a lot of stuffing and hiding of their own trauma.
Dan Bobkoff: In the mid-’50s, Midge and Bob took their kids to Italy. Allie's mom, Mary, was 12. And just like Midge had realized in Peru, Mary saw there was life outside their small town of Le Roy. She loved being in exciting new places and she saw a future for herself that didn't look like the rest of the Jell-O aristocracy. But while they were abroad, Midge found out she had breast cancer, and again, she reluctantly returned to Le Roy. She had a mastectomy, but she remained ill, eventually bedridden. And for months, no one in the family talked about the cancer. Mary resented her mother for taking them back to LeRoy, resented the sickness. It also scared her.
Allie Rowbottom: There was a time, and it really shaped my mother's life as sort of the last time that she saw her mother, which was in the winter and her mom had been worsening. But I think people weren't really talking about it and the family wasn't talking about it, certainly. But it was happening.
Dan Bobkoff: What was unsaid is that the cancer had come back. Midge was dying, and Mary wasn't prepared for it. No one was apparently. Perhaps most of all her husband.
Allie Rowbottom: Her mother came out of a bathroom on the first floor of the house and was very concerned. In the other room, Bob, Midge's husband, was calling the ambulance, and Midge was saying to my mother, “But please hide me. Don't let them come for me.” The subtext being, if they come and take me, I'm never coming back. And my mother was completely bewildered by this and frightened, I'm sure. And didn't know what to do. And so she said to her mother like, okay, I'll take care of you, but then ultimately couldn't figure out what to do and just had her sit down. And then my mom ran and hid behind the tool shed in the backyard while the ambulance came and took her mother away. And that was always told as sort of the last time that she saw her mother and her mother's last words to her being like, “Hide me.”
Dan Bobkoff: A couple weeks later, Mary received a phone call from her cousin, telling her Midge had died.
Allie Rowbottom: Everything fell apart. It was like somebody turned off the lights and things just fell apart.
Dan Bobkoff: Mary left Le Roy as soon as she could. She wanted to escape the small town life of Jell-O fame to carve out her own path on her own terms. She went to boarding school, then Sarah Lawrence, a small liberal arts college just north of New York. But she kept having nightmares about Midge’s death. She turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. By 19, Mary ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Someone there asked her, “What's your deal?”, “Jell-O,” she said.
Allie Rowbottom: I think that loss and the turmoil that ensued felt like a curse to my mom.
Dan Bobkoff: In Allie's family, there's been an idea for generations that all the family's problems came from Jell-O, a Jell-O curse. Allie's been hearing about it since she was. The men in the family have their idea of what it meant.
Allie Rowbottom: Alcoholism, addiction, existential boredom. They — the family had a history of all of those problems and also suicide and early deaths from mysterious causes.
Dan Bobkoff: Mary heard about the curse when she was little. And at first it was like a scary bedtime story.
Allie Rowbottom: She had learned as a child that the curse was specific to her family, specific to the men in her family, and how it haunted them because of the connection to Jell-O and the great wealth that Jell-O had brought the family.
Dan Bobkoff: But then after Midge died, Mary struggled with grief. A number of men took advantage of her vulnerability, abused her, and she eventually became addicted to drugs and alcohol. The curse started to feel very real to Mary. A curse that affected women. And over her life, she began to see Jell-O and everything it represented as a kind of parable. She could see it when she turned on the TV or opened a magazine and got a blunt reminder of where her money came from. The Jell-O ads made her cringe.
Allie Rowbottom: So it seems like she's looking up at someone who's taller than her and …
Dan Bobkoff: Allie showed me some old Jell-O ads from this time, around 1970. In one, a woman with coiffed auburn hair grimaces up at the camera, her hand over her mouth.
Allie Rowbottom: And the quote at the top of the image is, "This is the 'Guess what happened when I back the car out dear?' pudding". So the idea being that this woman messed up and now has to atone for it by offering her husband a slice of pie.
Dan Bobkoff: Jell-O isn't alone here. It didn't invent sexism. And it was far from the only mainstream company with ads like this. But even so, something about these ads feels especially biting. It's always a woman serving Jell-O to what we presume to be her husband. In one, she says, “Congratulations dear, but what exactly does a vice-president do?” In another, she's holding a Jell-O cream pie, clearly to atone for the new $950 for fur coat she bought. You can even see the price tag on it.
Allie Rowbottom: It's pretty egregious in terms of its sexism.
Dan Bobkoff: When these ads were published, Mary, her mother, was in her thirties. Allie hadn't even been born. Then later in the ‘70s, Jell-O found a new face for the product: the always cheerful, friendly and seemingly unthreatening …
[CLIP JELL-O AD 10]
CLIP (PERSON 1): Bill Cosby!
CLIP (BILL COSBY): Why not make new sugar-free Jell-O instant pudding?
Dan Bobkoff: Bill Cosby hawked Jell-O in the '70s, in the '80s, in the '90s. It's one of the longest celebrity endorsements in history.
[CLIP JELL-O AD 11]
CLIP (BILL COSBY): How long has it been since your mom's fixed Jell-O pudding for you?
CLIP (CHILD): A long time ago.
CLIP (BILL COSBY): How long?
Dan Bobkoff: For a lot of that time, especially in the '70s and '80s, the ads were still about mom in the kitchen, making Jell-O for her family.
CLIP (BILL COSBY): Mom? You know how the kids love Jell-O pudding and, you know, it's made with fresh milk. So it’s wholesome.
Dan Bobkoff: Bill Cosby's at the kid's table, he's never the one making the Jell-O.
CLIP (BILL COSBY): And you haven't made Jell-O for them since ...
CLIP (CHILD): Last night.
CLIP (BILL COSBY): Last ... What??
Dan Bobkoff: But seeing him perched at the kitchen table in a woolen sweater was enough to reinforce those All-American family values. Those Jell-O family values.
Dan Bobkoff: In her thirties, Mary had controlled her addictions and found some comfort and expression in art. She painted nude women with bold gestures and brushstrokes, but she never promoted herself or the work. She'd give away her paintings for free. After all, she had Jell-O money. Then she married and at 40-years-old, she got a surprise. She named her Allie.
Dan Bobkoff: What was your mom like as a mother?
Allie Rowbottom: She was very present and very childlike with me, which you know, seems almost kind of strange looking back on it, I think. Like when I look at old movies or whatever, I'm a little like ... I'm like, oh, I don't think I would be that kind of mom.
[CLIP FROM FAMILY MOVIES]
CLIP (MARY ROWBOTTOM): Should we sing Clementine?
CLIP (ALLIE ROWBOTTOM): Yeah.
[MARY AND ALLIE ROWBOTTOM SING CLEMENTINE TOGETHER ]
Dan Bobkoff: You can never really know a family from the outside, but when I see some of her childhood videos, I see a happy kid and a loving mom singing to her child in the bathtub with a puppet on her hand.
CLIP (MARY ROWBOTTOM): Oops. I got wet. Ooh. I got wet again! Ow! Ooh. Ah. I got wet again.
Dan Bobkoff: But Allie sees something different.
Allie Rowbottom: I noticed this in a lot of my childhood videos. Like she's acting when she's talking to me, like she's created a persona and that's where we meet.
CLIP (MARY ROWBOTTOM): Do you want me to take that little dead mouse and bury him? And then we'll have a little service.
CLIP (ALLIE ROWBOTTOM): Yeah.
CLIP (MARY ROWBOTTOM): All right.
Dan Bobkoff: In another video, it's Allie's first birthday party. Mary's sitting next to a plastic white picnic table. Allie's perched on her lap. They blow bubbles together. Allie giggles. And just to their left on a platter, a lime green Jell-O mold glistens in the sun.
[CLIP FROM ALLIE'S FIRST BIRTHDAY]
Dan Bobkoff: What's your first memory of Jell-O?
Allie Rowbottom: My first memory of Jell-O, it was at — I don't know if people are familiar with the grocery store chain Stop and Shop, but they had a salad bar that had Jell-O in it and cottage cheese and whipped cream and cantaloupe melon. And other things, I'm sure, but those were the things that my mom and I were selecting at the time, which I realized now, she must've been on some kind of diet.
Dan Bobkoff: Jell-O followed Mary and Allie throughout their lives. And weirdly Mary and Allie seemed to follow Jell-O.
Allie Rowbottom: During my adolescence, my parents divorced. My mom was again struggling to find her footing and we started Weight Watchers together.
[CLIP WEIGHT WATCHERS AD MUSIC]
Allie Rowbottom: I'd already had some struggles like in my very early adolescence, with restricting what I was eating, but I think — I don't know, like I had sort of yo-yoed and she was worried for some reason. And she was going to do Weight Watchers. So she was just like, why don't we do it together?
Dan Bobkoff: Oh, so it was her idea for you to do it?
Allie Rowbottom: It was her idea. So as in a lot of things at that time, I was like, fine. I feel betrayed by the fact that you've told me to start Weight Watchers. So I'm going to start Weight Watchers, but then I'm going to get better at it than you are. And so it felt like, I gotta get my number smaller than hers.
Dan Bobkoff: Weight Watchers assigns points to food, except there are a few foods that are zero points. You can eat as much of those as you want. And one of those was sugar-free Jell-O.
[CLIP SUGAR-FREE JELL-O AD 12]
Allie Rowbottom: We would just put it in the bowl on the table in between us and eat it together with spoons.
Allie Rowbottom: It was kind of an interesting time with us making Jell-O together because it was at once this sort of bonding experience, but it was also like bonding over this ultimately destructive act, like we were both trying to change our bodies as a way of feeling better about ourselves. And Jell-O, also, it doesn't really fill you up. It's not nutritious and it tastes horrible.
Dan Bobkoff: This started when Allie was a teenager. By the time she got to college, the mini-fridge in her dorm room was stocked full of sugar-free Jell-O cups. She refused to eat almost anything else. And before long, it turned into a full on eating disorder.
Allie Rowbottom: And that was a horrible, horrible time. It was a time that was really fraught for my mom and I, and then ultimately she gave me an ultimatum and I went into treatment when I was in my early twenties.
Dan Bobkoff: What'd she said to you?
Allie Rowbottom: She said, "No more money if you don't go to treatment."
Dan Bobkoff: And that worked.
Allie Rowbottom: It did. Yeah, because I didn't know what I was going to do otherwise.
Dan Bobkoff: Eating all that sugar-free Jell-O, sometimes only sugar-free Jell-O, was a habit that helped enable Allie's disorder. But it was the threat of losing the Jell-O money that compelled her to seek treatment. And it paid for that treatment. That Jell-O money her mom was threatening to cut off was paying her rent and other big costs. Then when she was better, Jell-O money would allow her to become a full-time writer. She didn't need a day job to pay the bills. So it's no wonder she didn't want to give up the cash, even if it was a little cursed.
Dan Bobkoff: The idea of weight was such a big thing in your life. Where do you think that came from?
Allie Rowbottom: There's this idea, at least for me in my life, of what happens when you are not, for whatever reason, allowed to speak of your trauma, and how it becomes important in situations like that to shut off the body. But then also give yourself something else to focus on. I think, at that point in my life, my parents were getting divorced and it was pretty messy. And I think I was also on the verge of adolescence and womanhood and it felt like I wasn't ready for that. I had no protector.
Dan Bobkoff: Allie got better, but what her family saw as the curse was reappearing in other ways. Now Mary was sick. Cancer, just like her mother, Midge. Then as Mary began treatment in Connecticut, she and Allie became obsessed with a new story from their Jell-O hometown, Le Roy, New York. It was about a group of young women known as the Le Roy Girls.
CLIP (ANCHOR PERSON 1): For months, doctors in Le Roy, NY, have been trying to figure out what caused 12 girls to have severe ticks, almost like Tourette syndrome.
Dan Bobkoff: Stay with us.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. If you missed last week’s show, it’s our first live show in two and a half years!
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): We are coming to you live tonight from Swedish American Hall in San Francisco!
Dan Pashman: It was so great to do a show in front of a crowd. So great to see so many people who come out. I got to talk with Kenji López-Alt — a longtime friend of the show, and the person whose recipes I cook A LOT. But we’ve never given Kenji the full Sporkful interview treatment, so this time we go deep on how Kenji became the internet food science guru he is today. And as he told me, his feelings about that role have changed in recent years.
CLIP (KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT): What I frequently found was cooking being used as — like, weaponizing it and like, especially in online communities. You know, it's like all these things that people used to put other people down. And sometimes you would see, you didn't do this the way Kenji said, so it's bad. Like, this is like objectively the best because the Food Lab says it's the best.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Because Kenji says.
CLIP (KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT): Yeah, and that's stupid, right? It’s dumb.
Dan Pashman: Plus, it wouldn’t be a Kenji interview without some science. He gets into the thermodynamics of wok cooking. That episode’s up now — check it out.
Dan Pashman: Now, back to the Jell-O curse, and reporter Dan Bobkoff …
CLIP (ANCHOR PERSON 2): Welcome back. What's been going on in Le Roy, New York in the past months?
Allie Rowbottom: So in 2011, in 2012 — and this is the story that my mom became really obsessed with.
CLIP (ANCHOR PERSON 3): A strange illness has made at least a dozen teenage girls sick at the same high school.
Allie Rowbottom: A group of girls who are living in Le Roy, New York ...
CLIP (LE ROY GIRL): Well, I used to cheer very day.
Allie Rowbottom: Came down with a mysterious set of ailments.
CLIP (LE ROY GIRL): I would go to art class. I used to — [SEIZES UP] — I used to go to two art classes …
Allie Rowbottom: Taking ticking Tourrttes-like symptoms.
CLIP (LE ROY GIRL): I was always — [SEIZES UP] — I was always so active and —
Allie Rowbottom: Nobody knew what was causing them.
CLIP (LE ROY GIRL): Everybody was always happy to be around me, but ...
Allie Rowbottom: And these ailments seem to spread like wildfire among this group of girls. So the town freaked out, as they should, looked for all sorts of contaminants and environmental factors.
CLIP (ANCHOR PERSON 3): And it's important to reiterate the state health department says it's competent students. They're are not at risk because of anything anything in or at Le Roy High School.
Allie Rowbottom: But ultimately that, you know, after every physical tasks was run and every possible physical problem was ruled out, the girls were issued a diagnosis of conversion disorder.
Dan Bobkoff: What is conversion disorder?
Allie Rowbottom: Conversion disorder is sort of what it sounds like. It's the conversion of, emotional stress or trauma into physical symptoms that the person experiencing those symptoms experiences as real and involuntary.
Dan Bobkoff: Seeing these girls, it suddenly struck Allie that something like this had been her experience too. After recovering from anorexia, one of her hands occasionally became paralyzed, stuck in a claw shape she couldn't uncurl, but she'd never known what was going on. Doctors had called her experiences stress-related. She got heart palpitations and migraines, panic attacks so bad she had to go to an emergency room. She and Mary had both come to understand their ailments partly through conversion disorder, or as Mary might've said, "As symptoms of the curse." So the case of the Le Roy Girls captivated Allie and her mother.
Allie Rowbottom: But I also really related to what felt like to me at their age, like an inability to understand the scope of my own trauma or to own it and certainly to speak it. So it made total sense to me that they couldn't say what it was that they maybe needed to say. And so their symptoms were coming out sideways, cause that certainly had happened to me.
Dan Bobkoff: What'd your mom think?
Allie Rowbottom: My mom really thought that this was not only a response to the individual traumas in each girl's life, but the sort of larger patriarchal character of the town in which they lived, one that she oftentimes described as sort of Brigadoon, like nothing ever changed. And that as being a problem, specifically for women. She also saw it as sort of an intergenerational phenomenon wherein women and young girls in this case are responding to the pain and the trauma that's passed down genetically from one generation to the next.
Dan Bobkoff: Eventually, the Le Roy girls started to get better. One of them was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome and the rest were treated for conversion disorder. By the time high school graduation rolled around, everything was back to normal. And Jell-O the food, obviously, didn't cause any of this. Years later, the neurologist who treated them stands by his diagnosis of conversion disorder. As to Mary's belief that it was caused by some kind of inherited trauma, we can't say for sure. An increasing number of studies are showing that traumatic experiences in your youth can alter your D.N.A. Then those changes can be passed to your kids, especially through women. But the research is pretty new. Still, it sounds like a more scientific version of what Mary would call the curse.
Dan Bobkoff: The curse is something that you've been thinking about since you were five. Right?
Allie Rowbottom: Yeah.
Dan Bobkoff: And so what does it mean to you?
Allie Rowbottom: It means not something that's at all specific to where I come from or my family, but rather something that's specific to American culture. I mean, I think it's a particular brand of patriarchy that's wedded to American capitalism and epitomized by the Jell-O brand. But I think you could look at other products and see it too. But Jell-O, because it was so invested in women's lives and freedom, or lack thereof, I think is a particularly apt emblem of the curse. And so although my mom had grown up learning about this Jell-O curse that people said was specific to her family, really she discovered that the curse was collective.
Dan Bobkoff: Jell-O left Le Roy in the ‘60s and moved its manufacturing to Delaware. But much of the family stayed. And just before her mom died, Allie headed back to Le Roy.
Allie Rowbottom: It was summertime and it was green and beautiful and a little bit suffocating, which is something that I've oftentimes felt about upstate New York. It feels like landlocked and there's trees closing in and mountains closing in, and there's this myth of Rip Van Winkle. And I feel it, like, I just have always felt sort of a palpable difference. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
Dan Bobkoff: How do you feel about your own inheritance and money? It comes from Le Roy, it comes from Jell-O?
Allie Rowbottom: Honestly, I see it and I have to say I'm like fairly early into my life as like an heir. My mom died three years ago and she, she left me, her slice of Jell-O.
Dan Bobkoff: Her slice is worth a couple million dollars. That plus some other money means she never has to work.
Allie Rowbottom: I really feel like it comes from her. Like, I don't really think about that. I know she did. And obviously, she grew up with Jell-O as much more of a presence than I did, but it feels to me like her. Maybe I am breaking the curse in some ways as I really don't see the money as a curse at all.
Dan Bobkoff: In 2015, Jell-O made its final appearance in Allie's relationship with her mother. It was a few months before Mary died from the cancer she'd had for more than a decade.
Allie Rowbottom: So, at this point it was spring, March of 2015. My mom had gone in for surgery in January. And had seemed to be improving, but then was no longer improving. So my husband and I flew to New York for her birthday and to see her through another hospital stay, sort of in an emergency capacity, and decided to have a little birthday party for her. It was going to be her 70th birthday. And the only thing that she could eat was Jell-O. And she preferred black cherry. So we bought a bunch of that. And since we didn't have a mold, we just put it in a Tupperware bowl, which we then flipped into this sort of odd cylinder shape and topped with whipped cream and a couple candles.
Dan Bobkoff: There's a video of this. She and her husband seem excited they got it to work at all.
[CLIP OF MARY ROWBOTTOM'S 70TH BIRTHDAY]
Allie Rowbottom: I went upstairs and got my mom and led her to the table. And we all sang “Happy Birthday” and she was sort of shuffling to the table in a white bathrobe with her hair a total mess, but she was trying to be delighted by the whole production. I think she was ultimately really fatigued. I have pictures of it and she looks just tired. But that was — that was pretty much the last meal she ever ate.
Dan Pashman: Allie Rowbottom’s book is called Jell-O Girls: A Family History. Our thanks to Dan Bobkoff and his whole team. This story originally aired on the Business Insider podcast, Household Name – which later became the podcast Brought To You By. The show’s not around anymore, but they’ve got a lot of other great food stories in their archive.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I talk with Andre Mack — a sommelier who owns a wine shop, a ham bar, a breakfast taco joint, and more. He’s got a great story, and it all started, like so many things, when he watched the TV show, Frasier. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that one, check out last week’s episode, taped live on stage with our friend, Kenji López-Alt. It's up now.