Food by VICE

Boston's Forgotten Coffee Jelly Lives On in Japanese Desserts

“When I tell my friends about coffee Jell-O… they just raise their eyebrows.”

by Nicole Carpenter
May 9 2019, 10:00am

Photo by the author

When historic Boston restaurant Durgin-Park closed on January 12, it took with it one of the last remnants of a dessert restaurant-goers likely don’t know to miss: coffee jelly.

At Durgin-Park, the restaurant best known for offering the stuff, coffee jelly was served as jiggling brown cubes—made of the previous day’s leftover coffee—topped with a mound of whipped cream.

“The chef [at Durgin-Park at the time] was a thrifty Yankee cook and hated it when the restaurant closed and there was still a pot of coffee that they hadn’t sold,” Michael Stern, author of Durgin-Park Cookbook: Classic Yankee Cooking in the Shadow of Faneuil Hall, told MUNCHIES. “Obviously, you can’t just serve yesterday’s coffee, so he made it into [gelatin].”

Coffee jelly is exactly what you think it is—gelatinized coffee. Once popular in New England, it never really caught on in the rest of the US, probably because vintage Jell-O desserts often bring to mind colorful but unappetizing molded dishes and suspicious “salads” from the 1950s.

Durgin-Park opened up in Boston in 1827, but early coffee jelly recipes date back to the New Family Receipt Book, published in England in 1817. The recipe called for cooks to extract gelatin from a calf’s foot and combine it with coriander, cinnamon, sugar, and orange peel—and coffee, of course. The dessert eventually started popping up in New England publications more readily in the late 1800s and early 1900s, likely tied to Boston-based Plymouth Rock Gelatin Company, which earned a patent for its phosphated gelatin in 1889.

New England newspaper Our Paper, Massachusetts Reformatory published an article from the London Lancet extolling the benefits of coffee jelly in 1908, writing that readers who face digestive disturbances from hot coffee should try out the gelatinized form. “A clear coffee jelly after dinner is every bit as good as the hot infusion, while it is free from some of the drawbacks of the latter,” the author writes, because the “astringent principles of coffee … are nullified by the gelatin.”

Americans were drinking a lot of coffee at the time, but it’s suggested that coffee in desserts didn’t really take off in New England—or anywhere in the country—until the late 1890s. Coffee was seen as a gendered drink with a “public, masculine connotation,” historical archaeologist Anne Yentsch wrote in a 2013 research article called “Applying Concepts from Historical Archaeology to New England’s Nineteenth-Century Cookbooks.”

As for its flavor, even Boston’s food historians aren’t very convinced of its deliciousness.

Though coffee got really popular in the late 1800s, it still “made its way into dessert recipes at a snail’s pace.” But eventually, it took off. Coffee jelly can be found on a 1946 menu from Union Oyster House and an estimated 1950s menu from Durgin-Park, which is the furthest back that James O'Connell, a food historian and author of Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History, told MUNCHIES he could find evidence of the dish.

Once gelatin started being sold commercially—Jell-O, obviously, is the big brand, but Plymouth Rock Gelatine Company was a staple in New England—coffee jelly entered the household. Both Jell-O and Plymouth Rock’s coffee packs were discontinued, but wedged into the memories of New Englanders; on recipes across the internet, New Englanders reminisce about the after-dinner dessert.

“My mother would make coffee Jell-O with leftover coffee from her bridge club,” one commenter on Epicurious wrote about her family in Fall River, Massachusetts. “When I tell my friends about coffee Jell-O … they just raise their eyebrows.”

As for its flavor, even Boston’s food historians aren’t very convinced of its deliciousness. “I have eaten at Durgin-Park many times and tried the coffee jelly once,” O’Connell added. “It seemed to have no taste.”

It’s not exactly the most appetizing-looking dish, either; the color definitely doesn’t carry much appeal. American food historian Megan Elias tells MUNCHIES that the color may be a reason why the dessert slowly fell out of favor. “Coffee would have been an obvious flavoring as it was something most Americans drank,” she said. “It may have lost its popularity as the newer, brighter artificially colored fruit flavors arrived in the market.”

You can’t get coffee jelly at Durgin-Park anymore, but two of the coffee jelly signs were up for auction through Central Mass. Auctions earlier this year—the chalkboard sign sold for $650, and a fiberboard coffee jelly sign sold for $850. Auctioneer Wayne Tuiskula told MUNCHIES that 600 people registered for the online auction; 200 is an average number of bidders for the site.

Though it’s near-extinct even in New England, coffee jelly—and other jelly desserts—continue to see popularity in Japan; agar, a seaweed-based gelatinizing agent, is said to have been discovered in 17th-century Japan, according to researchers. Los Angeles-based inventor Matsuoka Chokichi introduced a patent to manufacture agar in 1921. And in 2016, Starbucks Japan released a coffee jelly Frappuccino. So it makes sense, then, that the Boston area’s new bastion for the gelatinized treat is a Japanese restaurant.

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka in Cambridge, Massachusetts added coffee jelly to the menu last May, noting the dessert’s importance in both New England and Japan’s culinary history. (There are a few other Japanese shops that carry coffee jelly in Boston, including Ogawa Coffee, which serves decadent desserts topped with cubes of jellied coffee.) The ramen shop, which originated in Hokkaido and now has locations across the globe, takes a more traditional after-dinner coffee approach to its dessert’s look. Coffee jelly at Hokkaido Ramen Santouka could be misinterpreted as a cappuccino—as long as you don’t jiggle the cup, which is when you’ll notice it’s a gelatin and not a liquid. The jelly fills the cup most of the way to the top, and is topped with sweet condensed milk and a spray of whipped cream.

Unlike Durgin-Park, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka makes its coffee specifically for the restaurant’s coffee jelly, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka director of operations Igo Takahiro told MUNCHIES, “In Japan, a lot of factories have their own coffee jelly and they are sold through supermarkets and convenience stores,” Takahiro said. “[People] can buy [coffee jelly] from anywhere.”

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The coffee jelly sundae from Ogawa Coffee. Photo by the author

The recipe is really simple, he says. Make coffee, mix it with gelatin, and put condensed milk and whipped cream on it. “Coffee jelly is popular in Japan.” Takahiro said, “Before we [put it on the menu], an employee told us that coffee jelly had been popular in New England.”

“It’s not that they didn’t like the flavor, because once they tasted it, they liked it. But the notion of coffee Jell-O was off-putting to them."

So, might this signal a possible revival for the dish? Probably not, for better or for worse. Roger Berkowitz—CEO of Legal Sea Foods, a restaurant chain that originated in Boston—is one of coffee jelly’s most well-known supporters; a few years back, he posted a call for recipes in the Boston Herald, noting his childhood love of the dessert. “My mother wasn’t a particularly good cook,” Berkowitz told MUNCHIES. “But she managed not to screw up the coffee Jell-O. Growing up in the 50s, that was our go-to dessert.”

Berkowitz put coffee jelly on the Legal Sea Foods menu for a while, but it didn’t sell very well. “It didn’t have wide appeal,” he said. “It’s not that they didn’t like the flavor, because once they tasted it, they liked it. But the notion of coffee Jell-O was off-putting to them. Maybe [patrons] were thinking of it in terms of red or green [flavors].”

Coffee jelly may no longer be a ubiquitous New England dessert, and the closing of Durgin-Park has knocked one restaurant off the very short list of places to get it. But instead of mourning the loss of the of the vintage dessert at one of Boston’s oldest restaurants, we can still celebrate the dessert’s legacy in Japan—specifically, with Ogawa Coffee’s coffee jelly sundae, which combines the jiggly jelly with ice cream, chocolate terrine, whipped cream, corn flakes, chocolate sauce, and dried cranberries. My two cents: It’s delicious—muddy color and all.

Tagged:
coffee
Boston
new england
Massachusetts
coffee jelly
Durgin Park