April 28th, 2008

This isn’t about Obama, promise—it’s about jello molds

Here’s Obama’s most recent attempt to prove his proletarian bona fides:

I was raised in a setting with grandparents who grew up in small towns in Kansas, and the dinner table would have been very familiar to anyone here in small town Indiana — a lot of pot roast and potatoes and jello molds…

Ah, brave new America of the 70s, where pot roast and potatoes were the daily fare of the common man. One of my favorite dinners growing up, by the way.

But it’s the jello mold I want to talk about today. It used to be a ubiquitous entry at buffets and bazaars and the like, and I must say I always hated it.

And then there’s jello itself. You call that a dessert? Congealed Cool-Aid? Yes, when I was a tiny tot, I was taken in by the bright red color and the shaky charm of the gleaming stuff. But pretty soon I discovered that almost any other dessert tasted better.

The molds had a tendency to contain surprises that made a bad thing even worse. Sometimes vegetables were actually slipped under the surface, including the dread grated carrots with their interfering crunch. Yes, one did best to stay away from the jello mold, even the ones that held only the favored cling peaches as their secret prize.

But the most heinous offender of all was the tomato aspic mold. Those of you under the age of forty may not have ever seen one of these suckers, so I hereby offer this to advance your knowledge of culinary history, and to help you to appreciate the trials your elders may have endured:


And here’s the recipe in all its glory:

Container: Gelatin mold
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Serving Size: cup
Servings: 10

– 2 cups tomato juice, cold and divided
– 2 1/2 cups tomato juice, heated until hot
– 3 tablespoons unflavored gelatin (3 envelopes)
– 1 tablespoon lemon juice
– 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
– 1/4 teaspoon onion salt
– 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
– grated carrots


# Place 1-1/2 cups of cold tomato juice in large mixing bowl and disperse the gelatin over the juice.
# Allow juice and gelatin mixture to stand for 5 minutes so the gelatin softens.
# Add 2-1/2 cups of tomato juice to saucepan. Heat until hot and remove from heat. Add 1-1/2 cups of tomato/gelatin mixture. Continue heating on medium heat setting and stir mixture until the gelatin dissolves into the juice, approximatly 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
# Pour in the remaining 1 cup of cold juice.
# Add lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and onion salt to juice mixture, blending all ingredients together well.
# Peel carrots and grate into small pieces.
# Refrigerate until slightly thickened. Add carrots and stir into aspic mixture to evenly distribute the pieces. Then pour contents into salad mold.
# If individual servings are to be prepared, pour juice mixture into 10 small molds holding 1/2 cup each. If one large mold holding 10 servings is to be prepared, pour tomato mixture into a mold that will hold 4 cups of liquid.
# Refrigerate until mixture fully gels and is then ready for serving.
# Note: To add a spicy flavor to the aspic, before chilling add a few drops of hot sauce if desired.

No wonder Obama is a thin guy. If he was raised on too many of those, it would be enough to put anyone off his feed.

I can only hope for his sake that his jello mold experience was something like my later exposure to the genre, which almost (almost, but not quite) served to make me a convert. This was my mother-in-law’s version of the jello mold, which featured the usual jello plus canned fruit, but added her own not-so-secret ingredient: an especially prodigious amount of sour cream.

Now it’s a funny thing, because I don’t like sour cream either. But in a synergistic magic in which the whole was a million times greater than the sum of its parts, her jello mold was addictive, high-caloric ambrosia.

Ah, ambrosia! Another hatred of mine, in addition to the nasty Waldorf salad, two standards of past culinary days that I can happily state have fallen somewhat out of favor.

[NOTE: Lest you think I’m finished with the subject of jello molds, I have a second installment planned, one that will go into the somewhat surprising history of the dish. Suffice to say that Obama may have cited them for their status as proletarian icons, but I’m sure he’s unaware of their background. It turns out that jello molds were originally a mark of elitist strivings.]

42 Responses to “This isn’t about Obama, promise—it’s about jello molds”

  1. Gringo Says:

    My mother was a fine cook, and an adventerous one. However, I do not recall jello dishes with fondness, especially those w grated carrots.

    I believe we were fortunate in that tomato aspic was but a distant memory. I MUST have had it some time! Fortunately, I have repressed memory of it.

  2. Lord Squirrel Says:

    For some really entertaining jello molds, I highly recommend James Lileks Gallery of Regrettable Food and its sequel Gastroanomolies (both available from Amazon.com).

    Samples from the Gallery of Regrettable Food can be found on James’ web site: The Institute of Official Cheer

    You really will never, ever look at jello the same way again, even with all of your experience.

  3. Vanderleun Says:

    But…..but….. the cling peaches made it all worthwhile. The “clean” ones that had the little red core fringe stripped out.

  4. colagirl Says:

    D’oh! Lord Squirrel beat me to it! I was about to suggest Lileks myself. ๐Ÿ˜€

    I have never seen a Jell-O mold live in my life and must confess as to being slightly mystified on how anyone would ever come to think that they were a good idea. I eagerly await your second post, neoneo. ๐Ÿ˜€

  5. colagirl Says:

    Whoa! Since when did we get emoticons here?

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    The emoticons just come. I assure you I had nothing whatsoever to do with them ๐Ÿ™

  7. hai ku menter Says:

    Lime jello, ample
    Cream cheese and pineapple whipped
    Throughout … I love Mom.

  8. hai ku menter Says:

    ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚
    ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚
    ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜›

  9. njcommuter Says:

    I didn’t understand your horror of Jell-O until I read some of the recipes. Eeek! My experience was straight-up, no fancy molds, with canned fruit or fresh bananas now and then. Not the same as, say, double-chocolate ice cream but not bad after a hearty meal.

    My experience with mayo-based ‘salads’ is that they can be nicely done or ruined. It’s the difference between a decent cheese and Velveeta. I usually expect the worst. I’m sure that when the Waldorf Salad was made at the Waldorf it was a treat.

    There are some things that should only be tried by people with proper training or exceptional aptitude. Acrobatics are one such thing; making food that requires getting complex flavors through heavy ones is another.

  10. expat Says:

    While you are visiting Lileks, check out The Other White Meat, and click through to the end.

    Re mayo salads: I play around with homemade mayos, varying oils, vinegars and perhaps thinning with a dash of fruit juice. A dash of walnut oil is great for a composed salad with fruit and nuts.

  11. driver Says:

    Oh! I’m gagging. The grated carrots in the jello…..I was so over that. Now the nightmares will start again. As a therapist, you should know better!

    T’will make a great campaign ad for McCain, though.

  12. Thomas Says:

    “tomato aspic mold”


    But I was thinking of making jello with some blackberries in it…

  13. A chicken in every pot, a jello mold in every pantry….major barf alert! at Amused Cynic Says:

    […] being late afternoon, I was beginning to think about what to make for dinner.ย  Thanks to Neo-neocon, I won’t have to worry about that….my appetite is so gone.ย  Sweet Mother of Crap, what […]

  14. Artfldgr Says:



    anyone care to tell our hosts what jello is made from? anyone care to tell them what it was made from in the 70s?

    the greenies in the US have a big problem… most cows are not in food… nor are other animals…

    they go to the renderer….

    and so jello is made from rendered material…

    bovine and pork… anyone that knows the recipies of pigs feet would recognize the geletin

    [i like the solution of slavery… since there was only 4 million slaves, he suggested the north buy them then set them free]

    If you look at the ingredients on a box of Jell-O, you’ll see that it’s essentially sweetened, flavored, and colored gelatin. Gelatin is basically processed collagen, which is a structural protein in animals’ connective tissue, skin, and bones. Collagen also makes up about one-third of all the protein in the human body. Collagen is composed of glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, as well as other amino acids.

    for some reason, i dont think that jell-o is a favorite dessert of a muslim family…

    According to the Gelatin Manufacturers Institute of America (GMIA), pork skin, cattle bones, and cattle hide are the predominant raw materials used to make gelatin. The raw materials are washed, soaked in acid or lime, and washed again several times. Then the materials are boiled several times to extract the gelatin. The gelatin is filtered, concentrated, chilled, and either cut into ribbons or extruded as noodles and dried. Once dried, the gelatin is ground into the required particle size, depending on its intended use. The final product is brittle, transparent, colorless, tasteless, and odorless.

    in general, muslims should not eat jello, marshmallows, makeup, use cars, walk on the street, and more.

    since pork is in jello, and the rendered outcome is used in everything from explosives to after dinner confections.

    I also doubt that he lived in a normal rockwell situation, since this description contradicts others.


    The wobbly story of Jell-O began in the year 1845, when the great American industrialist Peter Cooper was granted a patent for a “gelatine dessert”.
    Cooper, inventor of the Tom Thumb steam locomotive engine, and philanthropic founder of New York City’s Cooper Union engineering school, was born in the year 1791 in New York City. Cooper’s other great achievements included his financial backing of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, and his proposition to President Lincoln that the US Civil War might be averted if all four million southern slaves were simply bought by the northern states, and freed.

    In the year 1897, some fifty-two years after Cooper’s patent, a fruit-flavoured gelatine desert was developed by Mr Pearl B. Wait. This sweet preparation was named Jell-O by Wait’s wife, May Davis Wait. The Waits manufactured their powdered dessert from their hometown of LeRoy, New York, USA, in four flavours: orange, lemon, raspberry and strawberry.

    Sales of Jell-O were slow for the Waits, and so they sold the Jell-O business to their next-door neighbour, the entrepreneur Orator Francis Woodward, for $US450.

    For several years, Woodward’s company, the Genesee Pure Food Company also had little success with the product. Sales were so poor, in fact, that Woodward offered the entire business to the Jell-O factory’s superintendent for $35. In one of the poorest business decisions of the nineteenth century, Woodward’s super declined the offer.

    Woodward stuck with the product, and eventually started to build fair sales in the first few two years of the 1900’s via a strategy of sampling. In the year 1902, he ran the first ever Jell-O press advertisment, in the Ladie’ s Home Journal magazine, describing Jell-O as “America’s Most Famous Dessert”. The three-inch advert cost Genesee $336, and contributed to taking sales to $250,000 in that year.

    Throughout the early years of the twentieth century, the Genesee company continued its strategy of marketing the product to domestic home-makers, via press advertisments and a famous (and now highly collectable) series of recipe booklets and informational pamphlets. America’s most famous cooks and home economists featured their own recipes, always incorporating Jell-O, in these publications. Interestingly, some of these recipes were savoury, such as Jellied Manhattan Salad and Egg Slices en Gelรฉe.

    Jell-O was, by the start of the first world war, entrenched as staple part of American domestic life. Jell-O was so feted that immigrants disembarking at New York’s famous Ellis Island were given bowls of Jell-O as a “Welcome to America” gesture.

    In November 1923, the Genesee Pure Food Company changed its name to the Jell-O Company, as a strategy to protect its trademark from imitators. In 1925, the Jell-O Company was aquired by the Postrum Company, which was later to become General Foods and ultimately Kraft Foods. By this year of 1923, Woodward’s $450 investment was worth $67,000,000.

    Some interesting Jell-O facts:

    The dessert-eating public of Salt Lake City, Utah, consume more Lime Jell-O than any other place in the world.
    In 1993, medical researchers from the St Jerome Hospital in Batavia performed an experiment on a bowl of Lime Jell-O. They discovered, by attaching the bowl to an EEG machine, that the motion of the set Jell-O has exactly the same waveforms as the human adult brain.
    Jell-O was inducted into the Smithsonian Institute in 1991
    The first Jell-O in space was aboard the Russian space station Mir, in 1996
    At the time of writing, Kraft Foods claims sales of over 400,000,000 boxes of Jell-O per annum, across a product range incorporating over 450 individual lines.


  15. DuMaurier-Smith Says:

    I too grew up with the aspics. Then I had a conversion experience.

    Every so often my Swedish mother-in-law went shopping for salmon. She’d begin with a psych war on the fish sellers (How fresh is it? I want to feel it! Let me smell it!) that made Olympia Dukakis’s butcher shop raid in the movie “Dad” look like Emily Post at a dinner party. When she was certain she had the freshest salmon in town, she’d take it home and make delicious salmon steaks. But there came a time when she brought one home, skinned it, boned it, and boiled the bejesus out of it until the meat fell apart in small flakes, all the while skimming scum off the top. I had no idea what she was doing, but I knew I wasn’t going to eat it. Maybe I’d have a beri-beri flare up and have to leave the table.

    When she brought out a copper-colored gelatin mold she’d carried with her from Sweden in the shape of large salmon with large scales, about the size of the one she’d just vaporized, my stomach palpably rolled. What could possibly be worse than tomato aspic with granulated carrots and celery? Granulated fish aspic, that’s what. After a certain amount of reduction, she added gelatin and and seasonings and poured the wretched mess into the mold. After it had cooled a while, she added two and a half buckets of chopped fresh dill. I left the kitchen brooding on lost salmon steaks. At dinner the salmon (aspic?) was served on a heavy silver tray fresh from the freezer. I thought the addition of a ball bearing for an eyeball would finish the image. Still, I couldn’t muster the courage to fake a beri-beri attack. I’d at least taste it.

    The “fish” was sliced in thick slabs, and was drizzled with a sauce that looked like a mixture of mayonaise and french dressing but in taste was all sharp lemon and dill. Wonderful. As was the salmon (aspic?). She did a similar delicious mold of veal. I truly loved her gelatin molds and would happily murder a holy man for another.

    Yes, Virgina, there is balm in Gilead and joy in aspic.

  16. Cappy Says:

    I like jello, but always feared those molds with junk in them.

  17. Jimmy J. Says:

    Being a bit off, I’m one of those odd people who love jello and especially love tomato aspic.

    I have to beg my wife to make it, as she is one of the normal people.

    I’ve cut and copied your recipe neo. Tomato aspic tomorrow night. Yum, yum.

    And no, all the explanations of how gelatine is made do not deter me.

  18. Larry Sheldon Says:

    I once studied under a chef who described aspic as “food-grade varnish”.

    I do like many flavors of Jello-brand gelatin, however.

    Booby-trapped deserts and aspics, not so much.

  19. Larry Sheldon Says:


    Booby-trapped desserts, either.

  20. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Hm. I actually like Waldorf salad. Not jello molds, though, not even my own mother-in-law’s version with the sour cream. And definitely not tomato aspic.

    Did you ever have consomme?? My mother served that exactly once. It was greeted with such dismayed ballyhoo that we never saw it again, thank goodness.

    The emoticons just come? You mean, if I type ๐Ÿ™‚ it will turn into an emoticon? I guess I’ll find out . . .

  21. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Oooh! It did!!

    Goodness. I tried to post the above right after posting the previous comment, and was admonished by WordPress as follows:

    “You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.”

    I’m not sure I’ve ever been scolded by a blog publishing program before.

  22. Maquis Says:

    Sour cream is a great idea! I use cream, makes it quite rich, and quite acceptable for low carb eating.

  23. expat Says:

    I’ll give a multiculti touch to this discussion. In Germany, flavored gelatin is called wackle pudding and there are only 2 flavors–an ambiguous generic red fruit and green sweet woodruff. It can be served with condensed milk.

  24. neo-neocon Says:

    expat: I do believe that German cuisine may just be one of the worst in the world, and that description doesn’t make me change my mind.

  25. The Ubiquitous Rev Wright Says:

    Black people do not eat jello molds because they do not perceive that particular culinary item the same way that people of European descent perceive it. A jello mold is chilly, it is gelatinous, it is congealed in place and not fluid, and these are qualities that abhorrent to the African soul. The right hemisphere of the brain cannot abide shimmying and shiny and slimy things like that. It is a false food. A food of cold oppression. And if Obama rekindles these memories of jello molds from the feasts of his white grandparents, that is because he is a politician and must say and do the things a politician must say.

  26. Conservativa Says:

    Oh, no, not carrots. That’s just wrong. Use minced celery and minced olives instead. Or, if you have a lot of time on your hands, slice pimento-stuffed olives thinly and stir gently into the aspic. Serve with a dollop of mayo on top.

    Aspic is best served as a side dish to accompany ham biscuits – homemade beaten biscuits with a sliver of Smithfield ham. Warm the ham biscuits in the oven at about 250 degrees F. Ham biscuits and tomato aspic. Mmmm.

  27. J. Otto Tennant Says:

    I was reared as a Lutheran, and so I am more accustomed to Lutefisk than Jell-O. But, in my youth, we seldom ate Jell-O.

    In Science Fiction fandom, there is a reference to LIme Jell-O, and I wish I knw what it is.

    All things considered, I think that ham viscuits and tomato aspic does sound very good.

  28. cSimon Says:

    Oh, I don’t know if I will ever be able to even look at Jell-O in the same way, let alone eat it! Argh!

    (My Mom would spike it with canned “Fruit Cocktail.” Really took me back to my childhood …which is a VERY long time ago! Speaking of which, is anybody old enough to remember a dessert that was sort of a “cousin” to Jell-O called Junket? Pink and opaque, and sickeningly sweet. Better was the Jell-O 1-2-3 (or was it 1-2-3 Jell-O? One used an electric mixer to whip this Jell-O with electric mixer & then pour into parfait glasses where it settled into plain old Jell-O on the bottom, a medium foam-like layer on top of that, and a light foam on top layer. It was sort of fun…..and not all that bad either….

  29. harry McHitlerburtonstein the COnservative Extremist Says:

    As a kid, I was always a little bit suspicious about the jello mold thing. It was like fruit cake; nobody ate it. At the end of a family get-together, It just sat there alone among the remains of more tasty deserts and…shimmied.

    It was just creepy food. I remember it usually a greenish donut-shaped affair with pieces of fruit imprisoned within. Some times it was clear enough to see inside. Other times it was opaque and mysterious

    Why would anyone purposely make something no one intended to eat? Why was it that it seemed that when you went for the pumpkin pie, the jello thing always seemed to be aware of your presence?

    I dont know, it just creeped me out.

  30. strcpy Says:


    Honestly, if that bothered you then you ought to become a vegetarian that borders on vegan. Until you have “processed” your own meat you have *no* idea what you are eating. There is a person at some point that literally grabs the animals intestine, pulls on them, and cuts the rectum out of the animal such that the innards come out easily and that *has* to be done to make *any* meat based product. Not to mention the wonderful smell of doing that. Those steaks do not come from trees nor do they cleanly pop out of said animal when it falls down.

    Also gelatin is the same thing you eat in soup if you have a meat based stock (stock being in large part gelatin rendered from bones – a cows tail makes one of the very high dollar stocks, though it is usually called “oxtail” to make people think it is something fancy). Cheese is made by bacteria spoiling the curds separated out of milk – in fact that high dollar cheese has “live cultures”. That is otherwise known as things that look like fleas roving all over the thing if you could actually see them. You know that expensive “natural casings” that are in high demand” It’s pig intestine lining.

    There are thousands of items you eat everyday that are disgusting if you had prepared it yourself.

    As for Jell-o molds there are two problems as too why most dislike them. First is that there was a period in our culinary history where people put things in there that shouldn’t have ever been – there are many many crunchy fruit molds that are quite tasty. Secondly there is also a difference from the “jell-o” you get in the packets and had Bill Cosby promote them and real gelatin molds expertly made with gelatin sheets .

    There is little better than those gelatin sheets mixed with pomegranate juice, sugar, and then let half form and add the pomegranate arils to it – sweet, tangy, and crunchy all in the same go. Though this is more properly a “gelatin mold” than a “jell-o mold”. Though even if you limit what you put in them one can make a fairly tasty Jell-o mold – but it is MUCH more limited in what you can do.

  31. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    cSimon (Simon?) — you can still get Junket. In Canada, at least:


  32. OBloodyHell Says:

    My Iowa grandmother used to put Mircle Whip on the stuff.

    Yeeeee-UCK. Every friggin’ family meal, I’d have to remind them (and it still got done anyway) NOT to put any on my salad.

  33. nyomythus Says:

    “with their interfering crunch” lol , I’m glad to see I’m not the only one sensitive to people munching their food.

  34. LittleRed1 Says:

    Gee, I like my family’s cranberry jello salad, and some of the other jelled desserts and such. But I grew up Presbyterian, am now Methodist and worked in Minnesota, so that may explain it.

  35. DuMaurier-Smith Says:

    J. Otto Tennant Says: “I was reared as a Lutheran, and so I am more accustomed to Lutefisk than Jell-O.”

    Lutefisk!” You’re a survivor with all penance behind you.

  36. Lileks Says:

    I don’t think anyone made those molds after ’74 or so; they just shellaced one, put it in the fridge, and brought it out twice a year.

    We did have an actual Jell-O mold for the last book release party, and it was untouched until some relatives in the 60+ demographic showed up, and failed to understand that the food was meant ironically. They ate huge portions.

  37. Gringo Says:

    I do believe that German cuisine may just be one of the worst in the world, and that description doesnโ€™t make me change my mind.
    I sentence you to a lifetime of English food, of Spotted Dick and boiled peas. (no curries permitted. I said English.) Midwestern US homecooking is basically a variation on German cooking. I can see why you would not be familiar with German pork dishes. Pork mit apfel mit kohl: great comfort food! Red cabbage with apples and onions. German desserts are to die for, but taken to excess will kill your arteries!

  38. Artfldgr Says:

    Larry Sheldon Says:
    Booby-trapped desserts, either.

    the best booby trapped desert i have ever seen is a frosted brick.

  39. Obi's Sister Says:

    Oh Snort! This is too funny! I hadn’t thought of those dreadful things for years.

    My personal favorite (NOT) was this lime-green frozen froth pistachio mold my grandmother used to make. With marshmallows.


  40. B. Durbin Says:

    I remember the time I was reading a book from the nineteenth century and it suddenly occurred to me what “calf’s foot jely” was.

    Yep. Unflavored Jello.

  41. Lewis Robinson Says:

    this december, fruit cakes are becoming more common in our local supermarket. i love fruit cakes *:~

  42. Quentin Says:

    When some one searches for his necessary thing, so he/she wishes to be available that in detail, so that thing is maintained over

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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