If your holiday plans involve spooning delicious, fluffy Cool Whip over pie or using Jell-O to make a delectable, gelatin infused treat, then you have only one man to thank: William A. Mitchell. The accomplished food scientist, who died in 2004, is responsible for a bevy of junk foods that have become staples at American potlucks, from the tubs of fake whipped cream we’ve come to love to quick-setting gelatin. Mitchell, a true devotee of the mid-twentieth century convenience food craze, was also responsible for Pop Rocks—and spent much of his career after inventing those foods attempting to discredit the rampant urban legends that sprang up in the carbonated candy’s wake.
Born in Minnesota in the early 1900s, Mitchell experienced his first culinary breakthrough at the beginning of World War II, after he was hired by General Foods. One of his first hits, a tapioca replacement, would foreshadow his future creation: quick-setting Jell-O. Because tapioca, which predominantly came from East Asian countries, was hard to find during the war, Mitchell’s starch and gelatin combination became a popular replacement preservative, as writer Emily Matchar points out in Smithsonian Magazine.
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As an inventor, Mitchell was constantly on the search for creative solutions to unconventional culinary challenges. Pop Rocks, arguably his most infamous invention, was technically the result of Mitchell’s failed attempt to create an instant soda. And Tang was Mitchell’s solution to the metallic-tasting water early astronauts were subjected to aboard spacecrafts. Tang did not initially find popularity among consumers, but after John Glenn tried some on his first mission, the brand used its new stellar reputation to its advantage. Ironically, Glenn was not an outspoken fan of Tang, and Buzz Aldrin didn’t have kind words for it either. During a late ‘90s interview with NPR, Aldrin declared that the powdered orange drink “sucks;” the pronouncement was noted in American food journalist Richard Foss’s Food in the Air and Space.
Although Pop Rocks were initially popular when they finally were introduced in 1975, the candy quickly became synonymous with bizarre urban legends. The playground story went that “Little Mikey,” a child actor featured in a 1972 Life Cereal commercial, had washed some Pop Rocks down with a soda. The carbonation from both products, combined, set off a chain reaction that caused poor Mikey’s stomach to explode. Somehow, this story sparked so much concern that the FDA felt compelled to set up a hotline for concerned parents, despite the fact that, as Snopes points out, “Little Mikey” was still very much alive. Even Mitchell spent time trying to debunk the Pop Rocks rumors. Still, the candy disappeared in the early 1980s, which lent staying power to the idea that death by Pop Rock combustion was a real threat. In truth, the rights to the product were bought by Kraft in the mid-’80s, which rebranded the product under the name “Action Candy,” giving the false impression that Pop Rocks had been pulled altogether.
Compared to Tang and Pop Rocks, Cool Whip and instant Jell-O have far less controversial histories. But they also have become more ingrained in home cooking. Both were invented in the mid-1960s, and both sprang from Mitchell’s desire to speed up common home cooking tasks. They have become integral ingredients in a number of potluck and holiday dishes that we know today, as author Mark Steyn pointed out in his 2004 obituary on Mitchell in Atlantic Magazine. From strawberry shortcake to a simple afterschool snack, Jell-O and Cool Whip are staples we reach for whenever we want something sweet, but without much effort. So when you’re spooning some Watergate salad onto your plate this year, spare a thought for Mitchell, the Midwesterner who made it happen.
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