Turning Jell-O Shots Into A Job
Matt Micari didn't try a Jell-O shot until he was 31. But he just quit his day job last week, as a biotech education teacher at Boston University, to become a professional, fulltime Jell-O shot caterer.
When Micari moved to Boston in 2008, he realized Jell-O shots were a great way to make friends. A scientist by trade, he began experimenting in his kitchen with different molds and flavors, enlisting his chemist friend to help invent entirely new ways to fuse gelatin together, and documenting his journeys through time, space, and tensile strength on his blog the Gelologist.
Jell-O is a miraculous substance. Both solid and liquid. Animal, vegetable, and mineral. Beloved by children and Sigma Chi brothers, working class midwestern moms and European molecular gastronomists. English chef Heston Blumenthal in fact earned his restaurant The Fat Duck the distinction of "Best Restaurant in the World" in 2005 for his exture-bending concoctions, like jelly of quail.
There's a reason why, as Micari puts it, "cupcakes are out, Jell-O is in."
Micari didn't realize when he started that he was stumbling into a movement. Back in 2008, his friends would tell him that he should write a cookbook.
"Who would buy a cookbook about Jell-O?" he replied. Now there are three on the market.
The Kitschiest Of Comfort Foods
"In these somber times of restraint, of reigning in and reallocating, we need a resurgence of steady wobble that won't let us down," says the Brooklyn Jell-O Mold Competition, which started handing out prizes in 2009. This summer's winners included Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen head, a working toy piano, a set of dentures, and a hot dog, with a side of ketchup, mustard, and relish. Micari's salted caramel chocolate pudding bust of Barack Obama didn't take home a ribbon.
Perhaps it's true that a tough economy has spurred Jell-O's revival. But there's nothing particularly restrained about a sriracha Jell-O shooter, laced with coconut milk, pineapple, and lime. It falls more in line with the recent gourmand reclaiming of "working class foods," like grilled cheese with gruyere and carmelized onions, fois gras poutine, and truffle mac and cheese. It's a movement that got fashionably underfed Brooklynites to chow down on pork shoulder and brisket.
For the creative underclass, many of them children of lawyers, doctors and bankers, this might have something to do with the crisis of "downward mobility."
The current fetish with early 1960s culture, sparked by "Mad Men" and exploited by two new shows this fall ("Pan Am" and "Playboy Club"), may also boost Jell-O's retro kitsch appeal. As Judith Warner writes in the New York Times, our obsession with that era is a hunger for its order and simplicity, while also a way to prove to ourselves how much better our lives are, free of the "sad and sordid sexual repression, the infantilization of women, the cookie-cutter conformity imposed upon men."
Maybe that's what Micari was doing when he made gelatinous candy corn this week.
Whatever the reasons, Jell-O is in. But there's a whiff of fleeting fad about it, which is something that gave Micari pause when he decided to abandon his decade-long career.
"What is really the sustainability of Jell-O catering?" he asked.
Low Calorie And Gluten-Free
But Micari is confident. With the enormous amount of allergies and food intolerances, as well as the booming organic movement, Micari believes there's an untapped demand for certain food substitutes, and that Jell-O has the untapped potential to fill it. He's already learned how to make wheat-free spinach pasta, and seaweed, bacteria, and plant-based jellies have yet to be fully explored.
Walking through an organic food store in Cambridge, brimming with produce, and cereals, and snack bars, he noticed that the Jell-O aisle was all just your standard Jell-O.
Another great selling hook is Jell-O's low calorie content. Micari and his friend just engineered a new sweet treat out of agave nectar, Truvia, the natural zero calorie sweetener, and organic raspberry juice.
"It's the perfect zero calorie, fresh, novel dessert," he says.
One can imagine the Jell-O diet becoming the new Atkins, and zero calorie jelly is already a cherished hunger-suppressant in Japan.
Micari doesn't seem particularly enthused, however, about inventing a new fun way for teen girls to starve themselves. He's drawn to the design, the creativity, and most importantly, the prospect of traveling, going to parties, meeting creative people, and watching guests gleefully slurp up his creations. There's glamor. There's adventure. There's job satisfaction.
With a platter of Jell-O, people just want to talk to you. "When you walk down the street normally, no one makes eye contact. But if you're holding a giant jiggly orange marshmallow they ask 'what is that and where are you going?'"
The artform allows Micari to explore his other passions, like Harry Potter ("I've read the series three times.... I do have a life outside of Gelatin shots. Wait that sounds really nerdy."). He's created black treacle droplets (secret ingredient: blackcurrant brandy) and edible golden snitches. After all, in the first book, Harry Potter captures the snitch in his mouth. "A plot perfect for a molded gelatin shot."
Micari's now experimenting with a 3D printer, which would allow him to make any mold he can dream up. "Someone's head. The Apple logo." His mind's been racing. "I'm picturing Jell-O-mobiles."
On Wednesday he's flying to Los Angeles for a four-day training course in a Latin American Jell-O injection technique, known as Gelatinas Artisticas. Then he's bopping up to San Francisco to meet with artist Liz Hikock, who sculpts entire fluorescent cityscapes out of the jiggly medium.
Micari is already known around Boston as "Jell-O Shot Matt," and he receives a few orders a day. Now he hopes to take that reputation nationwide. "That's the goal," he says. "I want to be that guy."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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