Memoir Writing Lesson #8: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Write for 10 minutes about Jell-O. Go.

In my mother’s grocery cart I was used to seeing a few boxes of Jell-O, along with Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and Chef Boyardee ravioli, which my mother pronounced raviolah and the neighbors called raviolee. For years I didn’t question why Jell-O was one of the main food groups. Meat, potatoes, vegetable from a freezer box, store bought dinner roll, and of course, Jell-O. That’s what we ate too often for my taste. Jell-O was a suitable dish for church potlucks. And when it came time to bring dishes to Grandma’s for holidays, Mom or one of my aunts had to bring the Jell-O: two-sided, one cherry and one orange; mint-green made with the lime-flavored mix and cream cheese; or a plain color with mandarin orange segments or canned fruit cocktail floating like thumbs and pinkie toes in formaldehyde. Jell-O was tolerable when other parts of the meal weren’t: lima beans, beets, and brussel sprouts. Then Anique moved in across the street. She wasn’t part of the family. They had six kids, all under the age of ten, and I babysat for those kids. When Anique arrived as an exchange student from France (although she was German with a German last name—the W like a V), I no longer had to babysit, but walked across the street to see her anyway. On the day we met, I asked her what surprises she had found so far in America. She didn’t even have to think about her reply. “Jell-O!” She shuddered when she said it. I asked her if they had Jell-O in France. She laughed and told me that French people would never eat anything so disgusting. Although I didn’t really change my opinion of Jell-O—I’d never respected it or even loved it, but it was tolerable on its own (i.e. no floating garbage)—I could see it from her perspective. I no longer took it for granted that Jell-O was a major food group.


 I realized after I wrote this that the memory of Anique’s words was so vivid to me because it was a defining moment: I no longer had to see the world through the eyes of my family.

Go ahead and try it. Write about Jell-O for 10!

We always have black kittens and cats available at the shelter–except around Halloween when they are not up for adoption.


Filed under #AmWriting, Cats and Other Animals, Creative Nonfiction, Flash Nonfiction, Inspiration, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing prompt

23 responses to “Memoir Writing Lesson #8: Check

  1. Very funny. Yes, I grew up with jello too, which was considered a dessert as well as a serving of fruit with mixed with a can of fruit cocktail, or my favorite: cottage cheese and pineapple!

    By the time I was a mother I seldom served jello to my kids, except when they were babies and had colds. Drinking milk then was considered a no-no, but jello mixed with hot water and served in bottle was just fine. It was also suppose to be good for your hair and finger nails.

    I did make plain cherry jello the other day for my granddaughter, wanting to see what she would make of it. Wouldn’t touch the stuff. But my husband polished it off–basking in warm, fuzzy memories from his childhood.

    • Deborah, you have some good memories of Jell-O! Haha, that one with cottage cheese and pineapple is one I’m sure my relatives served, but no way I would EVER touch it. that is sweet that you made it for your granddaughter and so funny she didn’t like it!!! Your husband is like so many of our generation: nostalgic!

  2. So, I like jello. Like, a lot. My family does not like jello much, and half of them will not eat it. I like it plain, especially lime, but I don’t mind some fruit in it or some whip on top. My MIL makes some elaborate jello salad with lettuce and pears and mayonnaise and I don’t know what all. It’s okay. She think it’s the cat’s meow, but I’d rather just have the jello.
    I wish Jell-O would start using natural coloring, I’d eat more of it. Artificial coloring irritates my eczema.
    Jello provides a cheap source of protein and a bit of sweet, which when served for dinner makes it good for preventing later snacking 😉

    • It was actually your comment here that started me on the path to remembering the Jell-O cubes at Schensul’s Cafeteria in Kalamazoo (a palace of a place). They had the whipped cream dollop on top!
      If your MIL tried to serve me that “salad” I think I’d have to find a migraine somewhere. I’d need an explanation as I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings. But ICK. All that stuff.
      Good point about the artificial coloring. I knew there was a reason it wasn’t that great for kids!!!
      But your passionate comment made me rethink Jell-O, at least somehwat hahahaha.

  3. I love the Jell-O with pinkie toes. Although I don’t hate Jell-O, neither do I eat it. But I have eaten it, even relished it. Jell-O is certainly a fertile topic. Now, on to tapiocca–>

    • What a difference an article makes! I almost thought you said, “I love Jell-O with pinkie toes.” That really would have turned my stomach and made me wonder about you. But you slid in “the” so I know you mean that you liked the image of it, not the actuality of it. hahaha
      Tapioca? For real? Um, no. RICE PUDDING with cinnamon or nutmeg on top, yes.
      But isn’t Boba Tapioca? I love Boba, so maybe that would be a great assignment. Go for 10 minutes on tapioca.

  4. Reading many back post thank you for sharing.

  5. Oh, how I miss jello! We used to have it for every festive occasion, all fancified with fruit and nuts and more: strawberry jello with tiny cheese balls; green jello with cottage cheese and pineapple; orange jello with mini marshmallows, raisins, and shredded carrots – heaven! When we went to parties, we brought Knox Blox.
    My favorite jello was something called Jello 1-2-3. You mixed it in a single bowl, but as it cooled it separated into three beautiful layers, each a different shade and texture. A kind of jello ombre, if you will.
    Jello is so versatile and elegant: molds, layers, a rainbow of flavors and colors. It’s a feast for all the senses, with marvelous tactile qualities as well as the usual sight, taste, and smell. It even makes distinctive sounds – the slurping noise when it releases from the mold, the sloshy sound it makes when it jiggles, the splatty plop when you drop a spoonful onto your plate.
    Excuse me now; I need to go make some jello. 🙂

    • Jennifer, this is absolutely marvelous! You almost make me miss the stuff! You make it sound so heavenly. You also made me remember something when you say Knox Blox (which sort of sounds awful)–my mother always had bad fingernails and used to “take” Knox for it, so we always had it in our cupboard! I probably also should have mentioned how I found Jell-O shots in the freezer after my daughter and her friends were here! Isn’t it true that Jell-O has been partially ruined by the pre-made ones sold at the grocery store? Those things are so rubbery.Thanks for your wonderful comment!

      • Yes, I agree that the pre-made stuff is pretty awful, though it can be a boon if one falls ill while traveling. It ought to be in the pharmacy section, with the Pedialite and other things that are *not* food, but instead meant to see one through illness. I obviously have very fond memories of REAL jello. Thank you for bringing them to the forefront again. 🙂

        • Now there is an idea: finding that colored rubber (always red or green or both, right? haha) in the pharmacy section! My mom is coming for a month this winter. Maybe I’ll ask her to make me some Jell-O. I haven’t made it for 20 years at least, but I know she has. If she does, I’ll think of you!

  6. I wasn’t quite sure what jello was when I started reading this so I had to google it (how embarrassing). It’s amazing how a few words can cause a defining moment in a life. Nicely written, Luanne xxx

    • That is my fault! I should have described the dang stuff at the beginning! Jell-O must be strictly an American food. Now THAT is what is embarrassing hahaha. I should have written also about how we used to go to Schensul’s Cafeteria (which everyone loved so much and was such a lovely place) and they had a whole array of sherbet glasses full of Jell-O cubes with whipped cream on them. I keep thinking of Jell-O now! Maybe I should mail you a box of Jell-O mix and you can try making it!

  7. Jell-O post about the food from about 100 years ago!!!

  8. It’s amazing that you can find a life-changing moment from writing about Jell-O Luanne! Some of these prompts initially seem so hard to make something of, but you’re doing it very well 🙂

  9. Wonderful descriptions of the jello dishes, and I recall them too from childhood. I think the Betty Crocker cookbook may have had some recipes? It seems that at our family gatherings, lime jello with marshmallows in it was the trend. Funny how food takes on status, class, and gender things. Jello = American middle class life in the 1950s and 1960s. Big steak = male gusto. Small salad = female daintiness or something like that.

    • Ewwww, the lime with marshmallows is just beyond what I can endure, although I’m pretty sure all my relatives would have LOVED it. Your observations here about food and status and class here is great. It’s so true. At our house, though, we used the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, which was the “other” one. 😉

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