JELL-O Girls

A Family History


Read by Allie Rowbottom

By Allie Rowbottom

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A “gorgeous” (New York Times) memoir that braids the evolution of one of America’s most iconic branding campaigns with the stirring tales of the women who lived behind its facade – told by the inheritor of their stories.

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than 100 years after that deal was struck, Allie’s mother Mary was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer, a disease that had also claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, determined to understand the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Allie boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune, Jell-O Girls is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss. In crystalline prose Rowbottom considers the roots of trauma not only in her own family, but in the American psyche as well, ultimately weaving a story that is deeply personal, as well as deeply connected to the collective female experience.


Author's Note

Much of this book is memoir. To write it, I relied on my own present recollections of experiences over time. Elsewhere, I relied on my mother's memory, as recounted to me through the years and as conveyed in her writings. All memories are subjective and affected by time, and I suspect that my mother would be the first to point that out, as well as to offer additions and amendments to the story I've told here. I am confident, though, that I have been true to her own sense of herself and to her story as I came to know them.

Like many memoirists, I have chosen to change some names and characteristics, compressed or omitted some events, and re-created dialogue.


She leaned forward, mouth opened for the wobbling pink Jell-O I steered toward her. "Here comes the Jell-O train," I sing-songed, as if she were a child and I her mother, piloting a spoon into my baby's mouth. She kept her lips closed over a laugh, focused on swallowing, and said nothing.

Across the room the TV flashed images of a Main Street somewhere in America, a dilapidated factory. Faded red brick, a smokestack, and a plaque: The Jell-O Company, 1900–1964. My mother gestured, mouth still full, pointing at the screen, suddenly frantic.

"Today we're revisiting LeRoy, New York," the newscaster said. "Birthplace of Jell-O, where, in late 2011 and early 2012, a group of girls suffered mysterious Tourette's-like symptoms with no known cause."

The camera cut to old footage of the girls, seated around a table, twitching, holding their own hands to stop themselves from flailing. Their eyes were rimmed in black liner. Their hair was neatly swept into headbands. Their lips were glossy and pink. Their mothers sat beside them, tensed against the camera's gaze, as if reined in to compensate for their daughters' unbounded bodies.


We had followed the story closely, my mother and I. The mystery of Katie Krautwurst, a senior at LeRoy High School, who, in October 2011, awoke from a nap with her chin frozen. It jutted from her face at an unnatural angle. Her face was in spasm, her whole body twitching. Weeks later, her best friend, Thera, took a nap and woke up similarly altered. She, too, was ticking, throwing her arms, jerking her head, stuttering.

The girls were both popular, both cheerleaders. Both had neatly conformed to the ideal of girlhood in their community, where the football team reigns supreme and Jell-O salads are still served on holidays and at local church potlucks. And the other girls, the girls who followed, also falling asleep, also awakening changed: those girls were cheerleaders, too. But after a while the numbers grew and the symptoms spread. Quiet girls like Lydia Parker were afflicted, too. One girl wasn't a girl at all but a thirty-six-year-old woman, a nurse.

About this "mystery illness" the media said many things. They said This is how it all started and then offered theories of train wrecks and toxic spills, black mold in the classrooms, witchcraft in the woods. They said There is no end in sight and talked about the diagnosis—conversion disorder, mass psychogenic illness—but always with a disbelieving tone, their faces floating on the television screen, disembodied heads in small side-by-side boxes. On other shows, the girls sat on sofas beside their mothers, answering questions and twitching more violently the more they spoke. "I know my daughter," Thera's mother said. "She's a normal happy girl. There must be something physically wrong with her." The mothers insisted, and the girls all agreed. A refrain emerged: they wanted the world to know they weren't crazy.

"Before this," Thera stuttered, arms flailing as she started to speak, "I was fine." As she convulsed, the other girls began to as well, their movements picking up until the couch was rocked by the violence of their bodies.


We weren't afraid of them, though the nation was. In the years approaching my mother's death, she and I were fixated on these girls. We talked about every unfolding aspect of their story. Hours on the phone about their lives, about our lives, about how our histories were entwined, about how we were implicated. How this "mystery illness" was a part of a system of symbolism, one older than us, older than Jell-O, consumerism, and America itself. One older even than witchcraft. One as old as men and women and words. This illness and its attendant metaphors, my mother told me, were what she'd been trying to write about all these years. This, she said, was why she'd started her memoir in the first place.

She pronounced memoir with a soft rmemwah—and talked about hers constantly. In fact, the book, almost as old as I was, sometimes seemed to me like my mother's second child, and I resented her flourished memwah for all the years she spent writing it, all the years she spent away from me. But until I got older, I never thought of her book the way she did: as a spell she wrote to stop her family curse and save herself.

Her writing would reclaim her life story, she believed, and the story of her mother before her. Her writing would become a counter-curse.

*  *  *

We come from Jell-O. It is our birthright, bought by my mother's great-great-uncle by marriage for $450 in 1899 and sold twenty-six years later for $67 million. Jell-O money paid my mother's health insurance. It many times bought my ticket to her bedside in the cancer ward at Mount Sinai, where in the winter of 2015 we watched the girls of LeRoy, searching for glimpses of ourselves.


Even so, my mother rarely ate the stuff. She saw Jell-O as an effigy of a curse she longed to escape. An apron, a kitchen, and long hours spent molding the perfect dessert had always seemed a cage to her, and she dreamed of freedom. Art and travel, music and self-expression, a life sung loudly and lived without fear.

But, sick as she was that winter, Jell-O was all she could keep down. "Who would have thought," she whispered one night as I was feeding her. I pretended not to hear. It hurt too much, to acknowledge every incremental loss she bore on the road to losing her life. I learned to be choosy with my empathy. She smacked her lips in mock satisfaction then, and listed the food she'd eat if she could. Cold slices of pineapple, fried-egg sandwiches, a burger so rare it dripped bloody juices. "You'll get there," I said, coaxing her to take one more bite.

Afterward, she slept, her little mouth open, sighs arriving like characters in her dreams, expressions of comfort, maybe, maybe of pain. Her red curls, touched with gray where the dye had worn off, haloed her face. Her hands were open at her sides, waiting for my palm, which molded perfectly to the soft shell of hers. I sat, our fingers interlaced, looking out the window, keeping watch, waiting for her eyes to open. Waiting to hear her voice.

From her room at Mount Sinai, we could see the vented smoke from the Carver Houses' rooftops, colliding with the winter air, making a cloud we hovered above. We could see cabs on Madison Avenue, fluorescent against the gray ground, and dirty bodega awnings, leafless trees like bodies, thin and aching in the cold. I walked the barren city every afternoon, arriving at her bedside with all varieties of liquids and broths, black-cherry Jell-O because she had mumbled through half sleep that it sounded better than the strawberry she received for lunch each day. Peppermint candies for her to suck, never swallow. Wonton soup I carried in a paper sack tucked under my coat and close to my body, to keep the heat in.


That was in January. By March, she'd be back in the hospital, unable to keep her food down, and Jell-O would remain the only thing she could stomach. By June, she would stop treatments and return home to a rented bed in the sunroom, to the hospice care that helped her to a front-row seat at my wedding in the garden, where I married the man I love into the Jell-O legacy. Two months after that, on the first day of September, she would leave me, passing away with the sunrise, unable to the end to talk about death, its cruelty, her fear. Unable to fathom how it was that Jell-O was the last meal she ever ate.


Somehow, though, I was unsurprised by the coincidence of my mother's last meal. I was used to black magic's mean jokes by then. My mother had been sick for decades, always in pain, always bargaining for her health, casting spells to keep herself alive long enough to see me into womanhood, to pass some sort of gauntlet. Once, when cancer had returned and another surgery was imminent, she traveled to Egypt, stood on the bow of a boat, and mimed scooping tumors from her body and throwing them overboard, offerings to the brown Nile water. "It's taken care of," she'd assured me, her voice solemn with the spell she had spoken to the river as she exorcised the cancer from her liver and gut. And she was right. When she returned, CT scans found no sign of the tumors they'd revealed the month before.

At first, the spell stuck. The tumors stayed vanished; she lived. But in time, every spell weakens. This I know. And even though time's dilution of my mother's witchcraft gave way to the cancer that killed her, I am still counting on her magic. Because the spell my mother cast that day slowed the curse she believed had made her sick in the first place, the curse she believed had befallen the girls of LeRoy, the curse she worried was coming for me, too.


The curse. When my mother was a child, it was used to explain all manner of familial misfortune. Death, alcoholism, wealth and the existential boredom it brought with it. It was, she was told, confined to men and therefore nothing for her to worry about. All she had to do was stay cute, stay pretty, stay silent. Later she understood these admonitions were the curse. The curse wasn't confined to men; it came from them, from a social structure predicated on their power. The curse was the silence impressed upon her, her mother before her, and countless women before them. The curse was the sickness that silence becomes when swallowed, lumps of unspoken words ticking like bombs.

Our task was to reclaim and speak, to take up space with our bodies and our voices. This is how we save ourselves, my mother constantly reminded me, through words and through witchcraft, that deep, intuitive power alive in every woman, connecting us across space and time. If you remember nothing else, remember this, she said. And so, I write. I return to my mother's body, her voice, through the hundreds of pages she left for me, the story I consult now like a spell book, searching its pages for incantations I might hold up against the silence she left behind.

Book I


They named my mother Mary. She was born in 1945, the last year of the Second World War. Her father, Bob, was a naval pilot with soft eyes and high cheekbones that cast shadows like smudges across the side of his face. Her mother, Midge, had been a journalist in Honolulu before Bob swept her off her feet. Midge hadn't been sure about children. But they were what one did after marriage, she reasoned. At least she had Bob, and the glamour and travel his profession ensured. She thought about this often, as she dressed in the morning, as she fell asleep at night. What would her life have been like if she'd defied the norm, stayed childless and free? Would she be writing now? She pictured herself at a desk surrounded by books, a cup of coffee steaming, a typewriter recording her words, and her byline, Mary Jane Fussell, claiming them. But each morning she woke to the children's cries, drowning out what could have been.

She rose from an empty bed and stayed housebound, adventure just outside her window, too risky for a woman alone. My grandparents lived in Lima, Peru, when my mother was born. There, Bob flew commercial jets for Panagra. He was always working. But he was lucky. While other pilots were drafted to fly dangerous jungle routes, waiting for shots to ring out, Bob kept the perks of his prewar profession: the shiny green-and-gold winged globe pin, the white hat, the black leather shoes he shined himself before each flight. He told jokes over the intercom, he smiled wide and white as passengers disembarked, he shook their hands, held their babies. Flight was still remarkable then, and a handsome pilot was a celebrity to most people.


Mary was born on the first day of spring. The March heat settled like a wet blanket over Midge while she held her dark-haired daughter in a bare-walled hospital room, listening to the whir of the fan, watching the light change outside, pulling night down over the city. Bob had left yellow roses on the bedside table, a glass of water, a book. They pulsed there, reminders of her incapacity.

For Midge, pregnancy had been uncomfortable. She'd known, from the birth of her first child three years before, what to expect, but her mother had written that it would be easier the second time. It wasn't. She hated her fat ankles, her unwieldy body, which she wanted to exit as she would a poorly lit room.

With both children, the labor pains had arrived like relief, like the promise of a life she might reclaim, and Midge had eagerly fetched her prepacked bag of toiletries and clothes and climbed into the car Bob wheeled slowly to the hospital. When they arrived, she walked through the doors Bob held open for her, climbed onto a gurney, and politely deferred to the team of white-suited doctors who stood at her bedside, telling her what was happening. "You're going to have a baby, Mrs. Fussell," they said in thick accents, as if she didn't know. "Are you ready for your medicine?" She nodded. Then the nurse arrived, administered, and twilight fell over Midge, who in the space between day and night saw her daughter enter the world as a shadow.


Midge had hoped her second child would balance out the needs of Thomas, her first. They'd have each other, she reasoned, and could lean more on each other and less on her. The thought of this, the promise of this freedom, carried her through the physical discomfort of pregnancy. After Mary's birth, Midge watched for the relief she'd been promised by baby books, her mother. She sat by her window, waiting for lightness to fall back into her life. She waited for the light, she waited for her husband, anticipating his return each evening like the ringing of a bell, the filling of a glass. They ate out, sometimes, at the country club, with friends from Panagra. This was the best part of Midge's life in Lima, the night.


A year passed. Mornings stayed endless, colorless, full of boring minutiae—groceries to be ordered, a baby to burp and feed, a mess to clean up, a toddler to comfort when he cried. Each day the city moved on outside Midge's windows, and she listened for it hungrily: honking horns, whistles and shouts; the sound of vendors ringing bells, of cart wheels over dirt or cobblestone. Each day they called out Mango!, held up wet, yellow blossoms Midge longed to taste. But she never felt free enough to do so. Even when the children napped, their niñera keeping watch by the window in their bedroom, fanning herself with a stiff pleat of paper glued to a stick, Midge never pursued the things she needed, the things that made her whole. Never did she feed paper into the typewriter she'd once used to write stories for the local paper, for anything other than letters home. Never did she push out her chair and take her housecoat off, hang it on a hook, pick up her purse, and walk out the door. Never did she try that cadmium fruit, bite to its seedy heart.

*  *  *

Midge had been married once before, to a man—a boy, really—who drank too much and made crass, critical remarks. It was a quick, impulsive union, a desperate attempt to depart from LeRoy, where she could barely stand to be, the scandal of her father's affairs—the latest with the choir leader of the Methodist Congregation, a mousy woman he ran off with to Florida—rippling out from his absence. But her first husband turned out to be from the same mold as her father. Only a week after the wedding, he stayed out late after work and returned smelling of another woman, indignant when Midge asked him where he'd been.

Was she truly so undesirable? Wanted only for her money? Were all men pre-programmed to cheat, lie, leave? Either way, Midge told herself, she wouldn't enable men's childishness. The second time her husband failed to return home, she picked up the phone, called her mother, and told her with a measured, businesslike tone what she needed to do. It would be a scandal, but both women had grown used to hushed gossip, whisperings of their failures and faults, whatever they had done or not done to drive the patriarch of their family into the choir leader's arms.

So within a week they'd packed their suitcases and boarded a plane for Reno. It was January, cool enough for furs. Mother and daughter donned their best coats and strolled arm in arm through the casinos, chatting, making bets, ordering drinks. When they returned home to LeRoy, it was as the recipients of two quickie divorces.

Despite the talk around town, after her divorce Midge had felt free. And with Bob, whom she met a few years later, when she moved to Honolulu, she felt treasured in a way that assured her he'd never leave. Bob was different from the men from home, men like her father who rarely spoke and hid behind their papers, their glasses of bourbon. He was lighter, lighthearted. He stood in tiki bars with his hands in the pockets of his khaki trousers, leaning back on his heels and laughing, looking at her. He twirled her on the dance floor, his hand in the dip of her upper back, pressing into the space between her shoulder blades, her wings.

This was everything she wanted, Midge had thought in the early months of her marriage to Bob: to be desired. But now, saddled with two babies, she felt stripped of the self she'd once been, peeled and reduced to a core, a body changed by pregnancy into an object of shame. Once, on a rare afternoon with Bob, when Mary was four months old and Tom was almost three, Midge sat in the front seat of a little rented car Bob wheeled around sharp turns, steep inclines, climbing into the Andes in low gear, the children wedged into the back on either side of a picnic basket. When the family stopped for lunch, Midge spread out blankets and unpacked the egg salad sandwiches she'd prepared that morning. She sat, exhausted, with Mary in her lap, watching Bob hold Tom up to point out the rusting carcass of a passenger train, cars scattered like limbs in the valley below.

When the children began to cry, Midge and Bob packed them back into the car. Midge braced as the winding path back down the mountain rocked her family back and forth, as baby Mary straddled her, vomiting repeatedly onto her shoulder, down her back, across the front of her blouse. Each time, with each hiccup, each sob, Midge stripped away another piece of soggy clothing until she wore only her bra and panties. Bob laughed, his eyes on the narrow road, and removed one hand to playfully pinch the side of her stomach, once drawn into a firm cord of muscle and now doughy. He meant it as a joke, but Midge felt mortified. She feared she'd lost what had made her lovable; her body, the object of her husband's desire, had changed—it belonged now to her children. Even her thoughts were suffocated by their screams. She looked down, down at her wailing baby, down at herself, her painful breasts, made conical by her brassiere, into which Mary's body melded. There was no privacy in this life. No space just for her, her thoughts, her words.


Once home Bob went inside ahead of the others and returned with a housecoat for his wife to wear in from the car. Midge wrapped the quilted fabric around herself, handed Mary to her husband, and climbed from the car, the baby screaming, arms outstretched, wanting to return to her mother's body. I need a moment, Midge said to Bob, give me just a moment, as she walked inside and into the bathroom, shutting the door, silence embracing her.


Once upon a delightfully light and wholesome dream, Jell-O and America fell in love and lived happily ever after in marketing heaven. But, as in all great love stories, first there was transformation, and a journey.

Long before Jell-O crossed oceans and landed in LeRoy, it was known just as gelatin, a product confined to the kitchens of European royalty, less a convenience product than a luxury. Throughout the fifteenth century, gelatin molds ornamented the feasts of kings and aristocrats. Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie de Médicis, and Richard the Second were all reported to have enjoyed the gelatin desserts prepared for them. In the Victorian era, the trend persisted; the ability to mold gelatin into decorative shapes appealed to the ornate aesthetic sensibilities of the time. By the nineteenth century, gelatin had finally found America and its people, and even Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a fancy gelatin mold at his Monticello feasts. But the work of scalding hooves, extracting and skimming fat, and adding flavor always fell to servants and took long hours of hard labor. There was always meticulous effort and human pain involved in its production.

At least, that is, until 1845, when Peter Cooper—creator of Cooper Union, the Tom Thumb locomotive, and a gas-powered "flying machine" that partly blinded him—patented unflavored gelatin, which he sold primarily to commercial kitchens. Cooper, who also produced glue to fund his more adventurous ventures, put little energy into marketing or sales. While he worked to lay wire beneath the Atlantic, a LeRoy businessman named Pearle Wait worked to make gelatin attractive to independent consumers.

Mr. Wait and his wife, May, made cough syrup and laxatives. But they barely got by, so Pearle spent hours in the basement, tinkering with formulas, trying to perfect a mix of gelatin and flavor. The result was Jell-O's first prototype, which was made almost entirely of sugar. But nobody seemed to mind. Its taste was the slipperiest sweet, and it was nutritious, too! Good for the gut, hair, skin, and nails!

May tackled the look of it: she began to experiment with the different shapes it might take, setting it in squares, then circles, just for fun. The Waits added an O to the name of their creation so that it matched Grain-O, a "pure food drink" billed as a coffee alternative for both children and adults, and then sold Jell-O to the drink's manufacturer, Midge's great-uncle-in-law, Orator Francis Woodward. The price tag for his purchase was $450: the modern-day equivalent of $4,000.


I have read that Pearle Wait went bankrupt soon after he sold Jell-O, after the Woodward fortune, already sizable, doubled, then tripled, after America's Most Famous Dessert sold box after box and piled into the cabinets of every kitchen in America, stacking up like so many clean white bricks. But it wasn't luck that put it there, in the pantry, in the icebox, on the plate. It was Orator. A self-made man who had earned his fortune on patent medicines and fake nest eggs treated to de-lice henhouses, Orator was versed in the work needed to grow a product. When he bought the Jell-O patent, signing his name above Mr. Wait's on a contract that hangs now in the Jell-O Museum in LeRoy, he thought he might as well give this little product everything he had, give it every chance to succeed.

So Orator traded his Grain-O for Jell-O, replacing silos and sifters with barrels of sugar and sacks of powdered gelatin, shipped in from factory farms. Trucks arrived each week heaped with the dusty remnants of tissue and bone, ready to be mixed with sweetness and dye to make the first Jell-O flavors—strawberry, raspberry, orange, or lemon.

Animal parts were plentiful, as was sugar, but initially, Jell-O sales were slow. LeRoy myth says that Orator, exasperated by poor profits, once tried to sell Jell-O's patent to his plant superintendent for thirty-five dollars. But nobody was buying. So Orator implemented every plan he could to move his product: on quiet weekday midmornings, he sent his handsomest marketing men to suburban front doors to flash white teeth and hold out white boxes to the women who answered. Immigrants en route to America were served Jell-O for dessert; when they landed at Ellis Island and walked shakily to solid ground, it was to be rewarded with promise and newness and a metal mold, round and ridged and just like all the others, Jell-O etched upon it in cheerful text.

By 1902, Jell-O was manufactured just down the street from Orator's house, the river outside the factory running colorful and sweet, changing color weekly depending on the flavor. Everyone in LeRoy worked for Jell-O. Parents packed powder into wax-paper pouches, which were then sealed and slipped into red-and-white boxes. Some put on suits and went to work in the offices at the front of the factory, or in Rochester, or Manhattan, where Jell-O's advertising agency was headquartered. Franklin King was one such man.


  • "Rowbottom weaves together her family history and the story of the classic American dessert to produce a book that alternately surprises and mesmerizes. Despite its title, this isn't a bland tale that goes down easy; Jell-O Girls is dark and astringent, a cutting rebuke to its delicate, candy-colored namesake.... Rowbottom has the literary skills and the analytical cunning to pull it off. Like a novelist, she can imagine herself into the emotional lives of others, while connecting her story and theirs to a larger narrative of cultural upheaval.... The writing is lush yet alert to specific.... But then Rowbottom's book is too rich and too singular to reduce to a tidy argument.... Gorgeous."
    Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
  • "We all come from somewhere, yet I never imagined that someone could come from Jell-O. From these beginnings, Allie Rowbottom has molded this generous book of intuition, connection, and grace. This is a work of wild insights and deep music."
    Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
  • "The author's family's Jell-O empire brought wealth and privilege but also seemed to curse the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself. With this fascinating cultural history of an iconic dessert and its creators, Rowbottom has found the courage to break the mold."—People
  • "A fascinating feminist exploration... a strange, sensitive account of trauma, motherhood, and America."—Real Simple
  • "Watch it glimmer, see it shimmer, cool and fruity, Jell-O.... If you're an American of a certain age, that jingle will come to mind unbidden as you open Allie Rowbottom's devastating memoir.... Her book doubles as a social history of the influential brand and its patriarchal messaging.... The mother-daughter portrait that emerges here melts the heart."—O, the Oprah Magazine
  • "Allie Rowbottom's memoir is an unflinching exploration of the inheritance and curse behind an American icon. Graceful and genuine, Jell-O Girls is what happens when a damn good story meets an even better writer."—Mat Johnson, author of Pym and Loving Day
  • "To most Americans, Jell-O is a diner staple; the savior of the sickroom; the sweet "glue" for the fruit mold grandma serves at Thanksgiving. But Jell-O was a darker thing for Allie Rowbottom's family. Although her great-great-great uncle's purchase of the Jell-O patent secured the family fortune, it also molded its female members in ways that insidiously defined and confined. In this first-ever insider account Rowbottom mixes up equal parts history, sociology, feminist tract and personal mother-daughter story to create a literary treatise as clear and bright as Jell-O itself."—Carolyn Wyman, author of Jell-O: A Biography
  • "Allie Rowbotton is a talent not to be overlooked! I love this book with all my heart. I couldn't put down this strangely sparkling cultural and family history"

    Porochista Khakpour, author of Sick
  • "Jell-O Girls is an artfully crafted feminist excavation of an American legacy and its dark underbelly by a tender and perceptive memoirist, a keen cultural critic, and a deserving chronicler of her mother's legacy. Jewel-toned as its subject, Rowbottom's prose brings into crystal focus the lacerating toll of patriarchy in our media, our homes, and our own bodies. She is a talent to be heralded."—Sarah Gerard, author of Sunshine State and Binary Star
  • "Rowbottom's keening book is at its core an act of devotion to her mother.... Rowbottom shares her mother's trenchant view of Jell-O's subliminal social programming, and her passages about the brand's marketing offer stimulating feminist cultural analysis. What gives her text its emotional force is the interweaving of this material with her own personal stories and those of her mother.... A moving portrait of abiding mother-daughter love."—Boston Globe
  • "Intimate and intriguing.... A fascinating feminist history of both a company and a family."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Brilliantly written and beautiful, Jell-O Girls is both a feminist document and an act of love. In compiling a history of the spell the Jell-O brand cast on the American housewife-by working its way into every dietary fad from "domestic science" to Weight Watchers-Allie Rowbottom also manages to chart the mystery of female pain. Along the way, Rowbottom reclaims her own family history, writing a tribute to her mother that is both gutting and gorgeous."—Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls
  • "Rowbottom paints a fascinating portrait of the family behind one of America's most famous desserts.... This account illuminates both the rise of an American product and dynasty. The renown of Jell-O will attract a variety of readers to this memoir, and the storytelling will keep them turning pages to the very end."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "This is more than a book: it's a phenomenon. It kept me up nights with its urgency and insistence, following Rowbottom, in her masterfully clear-eyed grief, on the hunt for understanding and explanation. JELL-O GIRLS is a heart-wrenching confession, an exacting cultural history and an important and honest feminist story for right now."Aja Gabel, author of The Ensemble
  • "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."
  • "Allie Rowbottom's JELL-O GIRLS is a gripping and compelling portrait of the women born into one of America's most recognizable brands. With masterful storytelling, Rowbottom weaves together her story and her mother's, both coming of age as ambitious women in the shadow of an American icon. JELL-O GIRLS is a feminist revelation and a captivating investigation of the true history behind a family and the collective consciousness of a nation."
    Julia Fierro, author of The Gypsy Moth Summer
  • "Mysterious illnesses, great disappointments, haunting events-the story behind Jell-O (yes, that Jell-O) is crazy. The author picks up the narrative from her mother, who became obsessed with researching, documenting, and overturning what she believed was a family curse, before she passed away in 2015. Jell-O Girls is part family history, part American history, and part commentary on our patriarchal society. But unexpectedly and at its core, it's a story of motherhood."—Goop
  • "This surprising page-turner of a memoir tells the story of the drama-haunted family behind the wiggly dessert that went on to become one of the most profitable businesses in American history (and a favorite Southern ingredient)."
    Garden & Gun
  • "This is a capable, highly readable book on a topic that deserves more attention."
    C.E. Morgan, New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Jul 24, 2018
Hachette Audio

Allie Rowbottom

About the Author

Allie Rowbottom received her BA from New York University, her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. Her work has received scholarships, essay prizes and honorable mentions from Tin House, Inprint, the Best American Essays series, the Florida Review, The Bellingham Review, the Black Warrior Review, The Southampton Review, and Hunger Mountain. She lives in Los Angeles.

Learn more about this author