- Jell-O:An Irrespective
It is during one of those post-rain afternoons, when the trees in Central Park seem to drip with red and yellow, that I enter the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue. It's a Tuesday and the institution is dotted with local retirees and bored security guards. I leave my umbrella at coat check, order a bowl of whitefish chowder in the basement café to warm myself, and enter the glass doors of the gallery. A friend had sent me a text while visiting the exhibit the previous day. It included a photo of a Jell-O box and a note saying, "Thought of you xx."
Inside the Jewish Museum is five decades of Martha Rosler's work, a large portion of which happens to be about food. One installation includes a dining room table, dressed and set for guests. A small speaker stationed by a water glass plays audio of a woman reciting the preparation of a boar's head, dipped in dark gelatin aspics and decorated with truffles. Projected above the table are changing images—photos of servers, lavish cakes, instructions for cheese decorating. A shelf full of cookbooks stands against the opposite wall with a placard inviting museum visitors to open these books and leaf through their pages. Rosler's performance video, Semiotics of the Kitchen—she stands [End Page 77] in a bare-bones kitchen, using cooking utensils to act out the letters of the alphabet—plays on repeat.
I make my way into another room, looking for a particular person, and there she is at the far end, a life-size, blown-up portrait. The immensity of the image takes me by surprise. It's a famous photograph of Ethel Rosenberg. In it, she stands in her kitchen and dries dishes. She is wearing a floral dress and there are bowls in the sink. The FBI have taken her husband, Julius, into custody, and the reporters are now in her home. They ask questions. A pot is still on the burner.
"What was the flavor of the Jell-O?" asks attorney Manny Bloch in a NYC courtroom. It's 1951, the height of the Red Scare.
Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, does not remember. But according to his testimony, after dinner at the Rosenbergs' apartment, Julius went into the kitchen with Ethel, took an empty Jell-O box and cut a side panel into two irregular parts. When placed together, these matching panel pieces became spycraft—a recognition signal between an informant and his contact.
David's lawyer, Roy Cohn, who would go on to become a key aid to Joseph McCarthy and would represent Donald Trump for thirteen years before his disbarment, selected the flavor of the courtroom facsimile. Raspberry. The stand-in box is presented during the trial. Sliced into. Pulled apart.
"Yes, like that."
It was in 1988 that visual artist Martha Rosler first exhibited her piece Unknown Secrets as a response to the media's portrayal of Ethel in her kitchen. Rosler's installation included silkscreened images—the largest being the reproduction of the photograph—as well as a wooden rack holding a dish-towel and a box of Jell-O, raspberry flavored. This is the box my friend took a picture of. It is a facsimile of the courtroom facsimile. [End Page 78]
Martha Rosler is a busy, renowned artist. She travels often. She's had prestigious solo shows in places like the Museum of Modern Art. Yet when I contact Rosler to get her thoughts on gelatin, she sends me a photograph of her granddaughter eating cherry Jell-O out of a Styrofoam container on Christmas Eve, a dessert her granddaughter chose above all other sweets. Rosler writes, "I have treated [Jell-O] with the disdain I thought it well deserves. Which doesn't mean it's not interesting; quite the opposite."
Jelly is the glue that sticks all body parts together. Collagen accounts for more than a quarter of a mammal's protein mass, and ever since the very beginning of cookery, since the beginning of placing things like fish and birds into boiling water, we...