Pastry Chef Ed writes:
Another thought on the historical significance of gelatin over starch. Gelatin was once a sign of wealth, before the advent of prepared gelatin, only members of the elite classes could afford it. It took hours to render gelatin from bones, skin, etc. clarify it, and turn it into fancy aspics, molded salads, desserts. etc. The use of gelatin was sign that the host or hostess had the means to support a kitchen staff with the skill and time to create such a dish. When gelatin became available commercially it still was a symbol of culinary sophistication.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that took gelatin from the dining room of the wealthy to the Jello salads found at PTA pot lucks and family back yard picnics. A glance through the cookbooks of the gilded age show hundreds of salads, fish courses, aspics, jellies, and Bavarian creams, plus as many different elaborate molds in which to shape them.
This sounds reasonable, though I confess I’ve had some difficulty finding information on the history of gelatin that is more than anecdotal. What I do know is that bone and skin-derived jellies like aspics have been around for millennia, though they really came into vogue in the Renaissance. By 1700 or so, gelatin was being produced on an industrial scale (it was the Industrial Revolution, after all) though it wasn’t always favored in the pastry kitchen because it was relatively unrefined and could make delicate creams taste like meat.
About 1890, a fellow by the name of Charles Knox of Jamestown, New York was watching his wife tediously prepare an aspic of calve’s feet and thought to himself: there has to be a better way. His refined and flavorless powdered product hit the market just a few years later, and the rest is kitchen history.