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Good Question: How did Jell-O become a Midwestern staple?

Why is Jell-O a Midwestern staple?
Why is Jell-O a Midwestern staple? 03:10

MINNEAPOLIS — A dessert that's beloved in Minnesota just celebrated a week honoring its fruity versatility. But its nationwide appeal is looking a bit wobbly.

On the heels of National Jell-O Week, we wanted to know: How did Jell-O become a Midwestern staple? And why has its popularity dipped over the years? 

"People use it on everything," said shopper Joan Cole after grabbing couple boxes herself with plans to make a Jell-O salad.

"Going to Lutheran church basements, there was always a Jell-O salad," added shopper Laurie Franklin.

Jell-O is iconic in its name, jiggly shape, and versatility.

Based on Google searches, it's Minnesota's most popular dessert.

Cole believes Jell-O is more popular than ever, at least in the circles she runs around. Franklin disagrees. 

"I think younger generations probably don't even look at Jell-O as being cool," she said.

One Minnesotan is fluffing up that uncool perception one kitschy video at a time.

Amber Estenson is known as That Midwestern Mom on her social media channels like Tiktok and Instagram. The Northern Minnesota native's videos play into funny midwestern tropes while making Jell-O recipes she genuinely enjoys.

She visited WCCO's studio kitchen where she made an Orange Fluff Salad consisting of cottage cheese, orange Jell-O, and Cool Whip. It's a timeless recipe from church cookbooks now imprinted in Estenson's mind. 

"I'm passing it down to those (younger) generations," she said of her social media efforts.

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That lineage of recipes traces back to Jell-O's heyday. Trademarked in 1897, the powdered concoction became famous in the early 1900's for creating vibrant, almost exotic desserts.

"It meant that you had refrigeration. So, it was kind of the food of the wealthy or the aristocracy," Estenson said. Jell-O had another boost post-World War II as a simple way for hardworking moms to create unique meals. Many recipes found their way into cookbooks put together by church groups, especially in Minnesota and neighboring states.

"I think that's the appeal of these salads is anybody can do this. It's just dumping stuff in a bowl, stirring it around," she said. Addition of fresh, or canned, fruit added to the "healthy" side of the salads and desserts.

Has Jell-O lost its popularity? "I'm probably the wrong person to ask this because if you open up my mother's pantry there's an entire door of Jell-O," Estenson said with a laugh.

The past decade has been filled with not-so-rosy reports about Jell-O's declining sales, as younger generations opt for healthier, more niche dessert options. Others might associate it with being sick or hospitalized, since it's a soft food option.

Estenson's videos might playfully poke fun at the recipes — but they also carry the torch for the wobbly wonder — holding firm in the heartland.

"Why did these recipes survive in Northern Minnesota or in the Midwest? It's just because we're hanging on to those things that we've always done. Grandma always did it. It reminds us of home," she said.

Jell-O recently looked to revitalize its brand by giving its packaging a whole new look. It is more colorful and emphasizes that some of its treats are "zero sugar."

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