- Powder House
Outside 77 St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, an old man walks a miniature dog, and a skateboarder sweeps past them on the street. Inside, I blink and slowly dig my spoon into a half-crystallized, fishy gelatin, slunk out of a plastic bowl. The apartment belongs to a friend of mine from grad school named Brandon. A tenement built in 1845, it is a typical narrow railroad layout with the rare prize of a balcony on either side.
When my mother first walked down St. Mark’s, with its line of smoke shops, open mic venues, and its tattoo parlor doubling as a coffee shop, she called it “a circus.” I was drawn to the neighborhood as I was drawn to Brandon’s character—to his inquisitiveness and loud laugh. Brandon embraced eccentricities. He was always working on quirky projects, constructing things: a coffee table, a costume for Burning Man, a black-and-white film on his Super 8 camera.
Brandon and I make the movie together. In the film, my hand picks up a small antler and places it into a pot of boiling water on his stove. It’s the first step in our gelatin recipe: sterilizing cartilage.
Peter Cooper, New Yorker and inventor of instant gelatin, made much of his fortune manufacturing glue. He stated, “I determined to make the best glue, and found out every method and ingredient looking to that end, and so it has always been in demand.” In order to make the stuff, Peter collected glue stock, [End Page 1] lime, sulfuric acid, scrap zinc, coal, and water. From the tanner, he gathered the roundings, skivings, and trimmings from hides of deer, goat, sheep, and cattle. From the butchers, Peter received calves feet and pates—all materials needed to create his ten uniform grades of product (the lowest being Jell-O). He took out several patents for the manufacture. The most successful was signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. It was for “making glue from the foot-water or liquor from the boiling of bone of all kinds of animals in double-floored evaporating pans.”
A recipe for molded orange jelly hangs on foam board at the Jell-O Museum in LeRoy, New York; this is the recipe we choose to follow. It was written by a woman named Hannah Glasse and published in Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a cookbook staple during the Revolutionary War. When questioned about the quality of the recipe, the woman at the museum’s front desk says, “I’ve never made that old stuff. It probably doesn’t taste very good.” Instructions include vague measurements and unfamiliar ingredients: hand-ground hartshorn, and isinglass, a collagen made from the dried swim bladders of fish.
Brandon receives two deliveries from eBay; he uses house keys to cut the tape on the boxes. The cloudy isinglass arrives in what looks like transparent ketchup packets. If you squish one with your index finger, it springs back. There is still dried blood and dirt on the hartshorn.
Hartshorn no longer requires the dry distillation of horns, but is produced by heating a mixture of ammonium chloride, or ammonium sulfate and chalk. Neither sounds appetizing. Using ammonia while baking can result in the creation of acrylamide (a carcinogen). Knowledge of this potential carcinogen led to a health study on the dangers of gingerbread in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry (scientists concluded it was safe enough).
Hartshorn is now foreign to most home cooks, but it wasn’t always so. While used to treat fevers, sunstroke, and snakebites, salt of hartshorn, or “baker’s ammonia,” served as a precursor to baking powder in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It acts as a leavening agent in bread and cookies. Today, 2.7 ounces sells for about nine dollars. But Brandon insists we go straight to the source—we go “old school” and make it ourselves.
We do not own proper utensils for the job and instead utilize a cheese [End Page 2] grater. Brandon and I take turns scraping antlers, rotating them, searching for soft spots. We want to fill a small bowl with...