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In Utah, It's Good to Be Green (Jell-O)

Gelatin gets molded to Salt Lake City tastes.

February 13, 2002|CAROLYN WYMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While athletes at the 2002 Winter Olympics are going for the gold, their Utahan hosts will be going for the green.

That is, green as in lime Jell-O--the nonsponsoring, unofficial food of choice in the home of the Winter Olympics.

Salt Lake City is America's Jell-O-eating capital. Every man, woman and child in Salt Lake City buys two boxes of the stuff annually, or twice the national average, says Mary Jane Kinkade of Jell-O brand gelatin-maker Kraft Foods. Utah residents also eat twice as much lime Jell-O as anyone else on the planet.

Locals attribute their high Jell-O consumption to the large population of teetotaling Mormons and their compensating love of sweets. (Utahans are also champion consumers of ice cream, candy bars and marshmallows--including the miniature ones used in Jell-O molds).

In Utah, the classic lime Jell-O add-in is shredded carrots.

Sariah Hillam, 31, of Roosevelt, Utah, sometimes makes Jell-O with vegetable broth. "Jell-O is something kids will eat," explains the mother of three.

And since shelf-stable Jell-O powder keeps well, it is a staple of the food larders all good Mormons keep.

Hillam reports frequent Jell-O sightings at potlucks and church gatherings--but the dishes are rarely sweet. "There will be at least four or five kinds of Jell-O salads at any event," she says. Jell-O desserts are rare by comparison, Hillam says, which could explain the large sales of the salad-oriented lime flavor in Utah.

Local newspaper food editor Valerie Phillips traces lime's popularity to a single locally popular Jell-O salad featuring lime Jell-O, crushed pineapple, cottage cheese and whipped cream. "That's been a big favorite for a very, very long time," says Phillips of Salt Lake City's Deseret News, whose 1998 Jell-O cooking contest acknowledged lime's popularity with a separate "green" category.

"Ask a Mormon to bring a green salad and they will bring green Jell-O," adds local cookbook author Roger Salazar, whose humorous cookbook "No Man Knows My Pastries: The Secret Not Sacred Recipes of Sister Enid Christensen" (Signature Books, $8.95) includes a chart matching Jell-O molds to common Mormon social occasions.

Utahans don't just eat Jell-O. They also slide in it, sculpt with it and use it to decorate their clothes and buildings. The annual Jell-O slide, which involves sliming up in a Jell-O pit before diving headfirst onto a slick plastic slice, is a recruiting tool for Utah State University's Latter-day Saints Men's Assn., although organizer Bud Pace says just as many young women take part.

You won't find corned beef and cabbage or green beer at the Flanigan's Inn in Zion National Park on St. Patrick's Day. This Irish restaurant and inn instead celebrates the holiday with a lime Jell-O sculpting contest. Salt Lake City also has a vintage clothing store (Grunts and Postures) whose exterior is decorated with more than 100 vintage Jell-O molds.

And guess which of the hundreds of Olympic pin designs authorized by the 2002 Salt Lake Organizing Committee has proven to be the most popular? That's right, the one depicting a bowl of cubed lime gelatin. The pins are now only available on the collectors market and cost a cool $150 to $200 each.

Pin maker Aminco International's California-based executives were initially skeptical about the idea of a Jell-O pin. "We were worried that Utah would be embarrassed about being known as the Jell-O-eating capital of the world," Aminco Vice President David Hyman says. "But Utahans are very proud of it."

Hyman and his colleagues were amazed that the lime Jell-O pins and a subsequent one featuring lime Jell-O and shredded carrots were all snapped up in a matter of weeks.

Jell-O's grip on Utah slipped in 1999, when Kraft announced that Des Moines had wrestled the lead in Jell-O sales away from Salt Lake City. Acting out of state patriotism (and without telling Kraft), chef Scott Blackerby of Salt Lake's Bambara restaurant risked his upscale reputation by serving Jell-O desserts and holding a "Take Back the Title!" Jell-O recipe contest. "The more people experiment with their recipes, the more Jell-O gelatin they'll buy," he says. Thanks in part to Blackerby's efforts, Utah regained its Jell-O eating crown in early 2001. To celebrate, Jell-O spokesman Bill Cosby delivered a free comedy routine to a joint session of the Utah state Legislature, which responded by making Jell-O the state's official snack food (overriding the protests of one senator who said Jell-O has too much "wiggle jiggle" for such a straitlaced state).

As for the Olympic athletes, those who train at any of the three sports centers run by the U.S. Olympic Committee see gelatin on the cafeteria salad bar daily. The committee's food services manager, Terri Moreman, says she serves it as a comfort--rather than a performance--food, although the diet varieties are popular with athletes who need to watch their weight.

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