In her book Dakota: a Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris talks about the cultural significance of Jell-o, though I suspect it doesn’t have to be the Kraft foods product, so much as any gelatin-based dessert. If you’ve ever been to a pot-luck on the prairie – not just in North or South Dakota, but anywhere on the prairie – you’ll be nodding your head in recognition. Why? Because while it’s a fun, fruity dessert all over the United States, in the Midwest, the upper Midwest, the plains states – in the part of the country we refer to as the American Heartland – Jell-o is a thing of delight, whereas, for the rest of us, it’s hospital food.
Specifically, Norris explains, the popularity of gelatin desserts in rural America is important because it meant the last places in our country finally got things like electricity, which led to other things like refrigeration (artificial refrigeration), often decades later than these things were the norm for Americans on both coasts.
It’s one of those things we don’t think about a lot – that divide between city and country, the divide between the fast-paced life in a major city, and the slower one in a small town. Maybe it’s because my birthday is approaching, and I’m about to turn forty-three (even though I don’t look it), that I’m thinking about this, but, increasingly, I want my fantasy life to be real.
People who know me might assume that my fantasy life involves starships or wizards, and it’s true that I love those things. I’m always going to love them. But I don’t want to live in them.
Rather, I’m craving the small-town-near-a-big-city ideal. I’ve lived in several of them, all when I was too young to appreciate them.
Atlantic Highlands, NJ, is the small town I was born into. It’s got a harbor, and it’s just down the road from Kevin Smith’s Leonardo (in fact my childhood best friend’s grandmother lived in Leonardo). My family is still pretty well known there, largely because they ran a diner near the main drag for many years. It’s one of those towns where you can hear fog horns at night and walk to the movies at ten PM and still be safe.
Georgetown, CO is where we lived when I was seven and eight. It had a progressive, open-plan elementary school that served several mountain towns, and during the winter, they’d turn the baseball diamond in the park into an ice skating rink. It was one of those places where being a child was fantastic but you’d probably be eager to leave by the time you were twelve.
Half Moon Bay, and Benecia – both in California – are two coastal villages I never lived in, but visited often. At one point Half Moon Bay had one of the highest per capita number of fax machines and home offices in the entire state of California.
I don’t want the picket fence – my dogs would jump it. I want to be able to walk down the street to get my espresso, stop in at the independent book shop, decorate a front porch for Halloween, and still be able to hop in the car and go see really good theatre without having to drive more than an hour.
I want to go to a community pot-luck, or a church supper, or whatever, and see, among the pasta salads and raw veggies and gluten-free tuna casseroles, glistening in the light, wiggling and jiggling without shame, a ring of orange Jell-o, flipping from a bundt tin and served on a bed of greens.
I want, in short, to gel in a home town the way I never have, because I don’t really HAVE a home town. I mean, home is where my husband and dogs are, but for most of my life we were in a different place every two years. My grandparents died when I was in my twenties. My parents retired to Mexico. The relatives I care about are spread across the country, like so many seeds borne away by the wind.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not discontent in the life I have. I just yearn for a sense of belonging I’ve never quite felt.
And I know someday I’ll find it.
Meanwhile, it’s August in Texas, and the pool is beckoning me to swim away my aversion to triple-digit temperatures. And maybe, just maybe, I might embrace my retro side this evening, and serve a dish of brightly colored Jell-o.
Jell-o is trademarked by the Kraft foods company.