Jell-O is not exactly in vogue. It’s not avocado toast or a green smoothie. Its sales have fallen sharply in recent years (by nearly $400 million between 2009 and 2018, according to one estimate.) But there’s at least one region in the United States still affectionately known as the Jell-O belt.
In homes along Utah’s Wasatch corridor and sections of neighboring states, the otherworldly confection still fills pantries and cupboards. On any given Saturday (at least prior to COVID-19) you could drive by a block party or church potluck and spot a half-eaten Jell-O salad alongside some funeral potatoes.
Jell-O’s midcentury appeal, and its recent decline, may have something to do with what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls America’s contemporary “crisis of meaning.” Unmoored from the social ties we used to find in kin and community — the kind of people who eat Jell-O together — we search for fulfillment in other sources.
Growing up in the United States in the 1950s, the total, completed fertility rate per woman was around 3.5 births; today it’s 1.6 births — below the rate of population replacement. Jell-O is a family and group confection. The brand was promoted by Norman Rockwell-style paintings and irritatingly catchy jingles aimed at kids featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks.
The pitch was to families — full stop. You can create lots of servings at a low cost — think gatherings. Its tactile form makes it fun to eat — think children.
Jell-O did well in Utah because the state has plenty of both. To mark Jell-O’s 100-year anniversary in 1997, Kraft disclosed sales figures showing that “Utah consumes more lime Jell-O per capita than any other place in the world.”
Our state embraced this news. “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED,” read a bill passed by the state Legislature in 2001 recognizing “Jell-O as a favorite snack food of Utah.”
In an era in which even Doritos touts an organic version, Jell-O — with its neon color — seems conspicuously inorganic. But in Utah, Jell-O continues to be a symbol of the state’s peculiar exceptionalism: family, faith and social cohesion. It’s a talisman of the granular norms that provide people with purpose, that make life better.
Every Wednesday afternoon in the Russell Senate Office Building, Utah Sen. Mike Lee hosts his staff’s weekly “Jell-O Wednesdays” for visitors. It’s good politics, but it’s also fitting for an elected official who launched the social capital project at the United States Joint Economic Committee. Much of the work of the committee underscores the overlooked interplay between economic well-being and social well-being.
When looking at Utah’s recent success it’s hard not to see the two as interwoven. And for Republicans who care about the former, turning a blind eye to the impact of social well-being is political negligence. The path forward for a nation beset by challenges will require a renewed focus on the habits and life scripts that lead to family, community and a better life.
Dial up Utah’s vital signs from before the world caught COVID-19 and the numbers speak for themselves.
For 13 years running, the American Legislative Exchange Council has ranked Utah No. 1 in terms of economic prospects. U.S. News & World Report puts Utah’s economy at No. 1. And happiness? Utah has the lowest divorce rate, highest rate of volunteerism and lowest number of hours in the office. And one study puts Utah behind only Hawaii as the happiest state in the union. Utah’s fundamentals — its youngest-in-the-nation demographics, diverse economy and sizable governmental and nongovernmental rainy-day funds — positioned the state to recover quicker from COVID-19’s economic effects just as the state did after the 2008 recession.
“Jell-O is a talisman of the granular norms that provide people with purpose, that make life better.”
According to a recent analysis by The Wall Street Journal, “As the pandemic raged through the U.S. in 2020, no metropolitan area in the country expanded the size of its labor force more on a percentage basis than Utah’s capital.”
Several years ago, the Harvard economist Raj Chetty and a team of researchers culled through national census data to gauge how different regions within the United States perform in terms of economic mobility. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Salt Lake City and its environs did remarkably well. Strong families and social cohesion make a difference, they explained. But this only begs the question: Why does Utah have stronger families or more social cohesion?
Mom and dad divorced when I was 4. About two years after the split we were together — just Mom and me — in our tiny apartment. She asked me to look at some pictures of her potential suitors.
“Gary, who do you think I should marry?”
To me, mom was the most beautiful woman in the world. So, I thought, her husband had to be handsome. I scanned the photos of eight or so men and searched for a guy with a good-looking mug.
The man in the photo I picked, Duane Barlow Herbert, married my mom. And for years I thought I was the reason. Duane adopted me as his son when I was 12. My name was changed to Herbert. I loved both my fathers, but in those years I wasn’t always exactly interested in taking orders from a man who didn’t share my DNA.
Dad was a hard worker who started at Geneva Steel and finished as the owner of his own construction company. My mom managed the chaos of a house bursting with seven kids. We went to church. Mom was dedicated to the choir. Growing up we just assumed services were supposed to continue with choir after everyone else went home.
Like most families, we butted heads now and again. We had strong wills. Together we worked; together we sacrificed. We succeeded not in accumulating immense wealth, but rather in cultivating the habits that make for a good life: family, faith and honest work.
None of it shielded us entirely from life’s messiness, but our upbringing gave my siblings and me sturdy spines. I had a front-row seat to our family’s financial struggles and modest triumphs. I saw my mom divorce and remarry. I saw the joys and struggles that came with a long enough leash that allowed me to fail, but also one solidly tied to principles designed to bring happiness and success.
I learned that the rhythms of family were the primary means by which essential life skills and norms were forged and passed down from one generation to the next. I came to appreciate from my own experience that family — even an imperfect family like mine — contained the seeds not only for life’s success, but also the success of our community and state. This isn’t just homespun philosophy from Orem, Utah (Family City, USA); it’s the collective wisdom of social science.
The Brookings Institution calls it the “success sequence.” And, although it has critics, the research is hard to dismiss. Harvard’s Arthur Brooks summarizes “thousands of academic studies” when he states that “enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life.” To put it more succinctly, healthy habits equals faith, family, friends and work.
When the early Latter-day Saint pioneers first arrived in the arid Mountain West, cooperation was a matter of life or death. To survive, they stuck together.
It’s little wonder that the beehive — a symbol of communal burden-sharing — became the state emblem. It’s the closest thing Utah has to a logo. It adorns everything from highway signs to our state flag.
Brigham Young, the leader of the pioneers, first proposed calling the territory “Deseret,” a word from the Book of Mormon that means “honeybee” and symbolizes industry and cooperation. The federal government decided on “Utah” for the state’s name, but the symbol of the beehive has endured.
Young and early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints weren’t alone in drawing inspiration from the honeybee.
In Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” the archbishop of Canterbury praises the “order” of the beehive “kingdom.” Bees have leaders and officers, merchants and soldiers — they have masons “building roofs of gold” and citizens “kneading” honey. Bees offer a portrait in miniature of nature’s constitution, the Bard tells us. They depend on one another for survival and for success.
What one does impacts the whole hive. They’re all connected. Yet another of nature’s sermons is the starling. It’s no secret that Utah — and many other states — view starlings as pests. We have too many of them; but, in terms of survival, they’re successful. As one bird expert put it to The Associated Press, they’re “quite the biological machine.”
Just look up long enough at the sky and you’ll spot them. Like a fluid cloud, starlings congregate in the air, swaying together in unpredictable and ever more imaginative directions. For years, the phenomenon remained largely a mystery. Recently, however, technology has aided scientists in dissecting the processes that actually produce their collective motions.
Inside these bird clouds, a sudden movement of just one starling triggers reactions throughout the flock. A bird moving at the sight of a potential threat influences surrounding birds. This spreads with each movement until all fly together in what looks to the observer like a single wave rolling across the sky.
This isn’t a typical lesson on “the birds and the bees.” Observing hives and starling murmurations teaches us that communities are connected. Individuals shape collective norms and habits. In turn, those norms become policies and community actions that circle back and shape us. In other words, we influence each other. The flight patterns we choose affect the destinations of those around us.
Culture impacts what we buy, who we follow and our life choices. No wonder so many take up arms in the so-called “culture wars.” It holds the power to nudge us toward wise choices and better outcomes, or toward turbulence and dangerous outcomes.
Institutions, like political parties, clubs and churches, play a role. Thinker Yuval Levin has called institutions “the durable forms of our common life,” giving shape, structure and roles to our aims and individual actions. Institutionalizing our shared goals is natural. It aligns with our yearning to fit in and pitch in. This kind of prosocial peer pressure can inspire heroic lives of moral virtue. Not unlike the starlings, those who do good induce others around their orbit to fly in a similar direction.
But what of independence or individuality? Doesn’t all this talk about the common good or burden-sharing inevitably lead to thorny questions about infringing on sacred individual rights?
These ideas are actually not contradictory, but complementary. The more that institutions such as families and faith groups are given the liberty and support to grow and succeed, they can help mold us together for the common good — not unlike the way Jell-O salads still bring neighbors, kin and co-religionists together all along Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Gary Herbert is the former governor of Utah.