Oh Jell-O mold! Queen of the gelatin firmament! Shapely and quivering even unto your 100th year! You, humble New York State native, have become a domestic icon spreading your jewel tones worldwide, with more than 1,134,239 packages purchased or eaten each day, registering almost a billion dollars in sales. Strawberry Kiwi, Peach Passion Fruit, Sparkling White Grape -- three of 23 flavors whose granules are trapped inside those little cardboard boxes -- shimmer exotically alongside the basic Black Cherry, Lime and Orange of childhood.

Those who've managed to get through life without encountering a Jell-O mold (you're probably either under 30 or were nurtured in a different culture) have missed out on the fruit- or vegetable-filled molded- gelatin desserts and salads that once were staples on American dinner tables. Like Molded Waldorf Salad -- chunks of apple and walnut suspended in gelatin. Or Rainbow Ribbon Mold, a circular dazzler that

stacks rings of different flavors (each mixed with a little sour cream) atop one another.

The 8,176 citizens of Le Roy, N.Y., probably feel sorry for the Jell-O deficient. Le Roy is where Jell-O was born in 1897, and where savvy restaurants have been serving molded salads and desserts this spring and summer in honor of the centenary.

At Muggins, a lively Le Roy sports bar, Phil Tooze is offering a lemon and lime Jell-O-based Waldorf Salad in a traditional round mold. And people are ordering it in place of a salad or potato.

Over at Le Roy's D&R Depot, Nancy Nickerson says, "We're cheating": Her restaurant staff is putting cubes of fruited Jell-O on salad plates rather than doing molds. Why? The staff has been too busy constructing a nine-foot-long, 15-car train made out of Jell-O, complete with engines, a box car, a cattle car, a coal car and a caboose.

The "History of Jell-O" exhibit at the Le Roy Historical Society has drawn "a couple of bus tours a week, which we never saw before," says Lynne Belluscio, the director of the society. "Most of the people we saw before the exhibit were doing genealogy."

Jell-O left Le Roy in 1964 and is now produced by Kraft Foods. NOT EXACTLY VENUS ON THE HALFSHELL

Jell-O and gelatin molds did not spring from nowhere in 1897. Their forebears were traditional jellied dishes made with home-prepared calf's-foot jelly. Even sheets of granulated gelatin were available earlier. But husband-and-wife innovators Pearle B. and May Davis Wait of Le Roy, he a carpenter and cough-syrup manufacturer, made their mark with a granulated gelatin that was presweetened and preflavored. They dubbed it Jell-O but weren't very successful in their door-to-door sales. Neighbor Orator Francis Woodward, who had recently founded the Genesee Pure Food Co., bought them out two years later for $450. He too had a hard time with sales but began distributing recipes, some of which evoked Victorian prototypes -- such as traditional puddings and blancmange, according to Belluscio. Nonetheless, from its first recipe booklet in 1904, Jell-O extolled the mold.

Many of those early molds are displayed in the historical society exhibit. Small ones in varying designs. Large fluted ones. Porcelain precursors from the mid-1800s. Stamped aluminum molds that were first produced by the Jell-O company in 1904 and branded with the now-iconic name. ("We have a lot," says Belluscio, "at least 18 different shapes that said Jell-O.") Decorative molds from the '50s and '60s. Little individual ones from the '40s.

As the century moved along, the company continued to promote a variety of "fancy" molds, even diamond-, heart-, club- and spade-shape molds -- naturals for card parties. In the '20s and especially the '30s, the company's product promotions put Jell-O forward as the basis for jellied salads and desserts. "Jell-O molds in the '30s and '40s fit with what women were expected to put on table," says Belluscio.

In the late 1940s and '50s, there was Jell-O mold mania. Jell-O helped out by distributing booklets that taught the basics -- which fruits sink in gelatin (canned fruits, fresh oranges and grapes, and cooked prunes) and, of course, which float (apple cubes, banana slices, fresh grapefruit sections, fresh peach and strawberry slices, marshmallows and broken nut meats).

Every family seemed to have its favorite combinations: bing cherries, nuts and wine with black cherry Jell-O; shredded carrots, celery and cucumber with lemon; canned salmon and vegetables with lime.

Jell-O grew and grew in popularity (with a break for wartime sugar shortages), but as the total-hostess craze topped off, Jell-O's advertising turned light-hearted, witness promotions such as Use-Up-Your-Leftovers-in-a-Jell-O-Salad Week and National Jell-O-With-Fruit-to-Boot Week. It wasn't until after the Eisenhower era that mass popularity tapered off. Today, traditional Jell-O molds are seen as nostalgic -- relics from bygone days, before gourmet cooking, fast food, the women's movement and wholesale divorce forever altered America's relationship to hearth and home. PLAYING WITH THE NOSTALGIC IMAGE

Home, family and holidays have always been essential to the Jell-O mold image (think popular spokesman Bill Cosby or, in the '30s and '40s, radio comedian Jack Benny). The Food section asked readers for their family Jell-O memories, and response was enormous (see box below). An example: "Oh, that strawberry Jell-O mold with cream cheese frosting, full of pineapple, strawberries and walnuts," wrote Susan Sartory, an elementary-school librarian in Owings Mills, Md. "My mom made it for holidays, and I now do the same for my husband and four children for all special occasions."

Some cultural historians, however, balk at the accuracy of the image presented -- particularly after World War II.

"The Jell-O mold itself was symbolic of the '50s, molding women into what they were supposed to be, after moving them from wartime jobs," says Arlene Avakian, associate professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of "Through the Kitchen Window" (Beacon, $25).

"Home was the place where women were supposed to get their fulfillment after the war," she says. "The recipes in magazines became much more complicated. If you wanted women at home, then you have them cooking for a long time. Instead of just making Jell-O, she had to put the Jell-O into little molds that required more time -- you have to get them out, fill them up, then wash them out again after you use them."

(Actually, you have to do more than that: The molds require attentive timing, cutting up the ingredients -- or buying the right cans. And then there is the business of unmolding. None of this is the least bit difficult, of course, but it does take longer than boiling water for just plain Jell-O.)

The popularity of Jell-O molds reflected another trend: the increasing use of processed foods and the unease those foods provoked. According to Warren Belasco, an American Studies professor at the University of Maryland, "In a sense, making housework more aesthetically important was a way of legitimizing the use of convenience foods," he says. "And there was a lot of resistence to using {them}."

As time went on, and women entered the job market, Jell-O urged make-ahead molded fruit and vegetable salads to make sure the evening meal looked as nice as it did when women could work all day on it.

But during the last two decades, the consumer audience refocused on pleasing kids rather than homemakers, observes the Le Roy Historical Society's Belluscio. What role could molded desserts and salads possibly play?

Enter Jigglers in 1988 -- the updated, child-friendly molds that turn Jell-O into finger food -- moons, stars, hearts, dinosaurs, initials, Easter eggs. Jigglers molds have even made their way into cyberspace, where consumers can order sets on-line (http://kraftfoods.com).

Lovers of traditional molds can find inspiration in cyberspace too -- at Jellophile, the self-described Jellomaniacs' Web site (http://www.geo- cities.com/NapaValley/2022/jello.html), which, among other things, lists recipes for delights such as Patriotic Jell-O Salad, Smooth Fruit and Cheese Salad and Jell-O Ribbon Salad.

This spring, much was made of a Jell-O-mold-like dessert served at a high-toned banquet for foodies sponsored by Manhattan's James Beard Foundation. The highly praised recipe called for sheets of gelatin, fruit juices and sugar rather than you-know-what. But if a dessert looks like a Jell-O mold and tastes like a really good Jell-O mold . . . ?

Why not give in to the mold as the ritual food of Thanksgiving, Christmas and family gatherings, food that harks back to simpler times when families actually ate together?

Look at one reader's response. "A vegetable mold is still a staple at our family Christmas eve dinner," Lois Rochester of Charlottesville assures us. "I think molded salads are great, and I hope they'll become popular again."

A glossy anniversary cookbook ($18.95) has been released for Jell-O brand gelatin's 100th birthday, with pictures of the century's favorites, such as Broken Window Glass Cake (a loaf with colorful cubes of gelatin dotted throughout), Gaiety Pastel Cookies (fruit-flavored cookies that glow), Gelatin Poke Cake (the cake with strands of Jell-O weaving through it). An order form for the book is available from Jell-O's Web site: http://kraftfoods.com MOLDED GAZPACHO SALAD WITH AVOCADO CREAM (6 to 8 servings)

This molded version of Spanish gazpacho soup and its Avocado Cream accompaniment are taken from the "Junior League Centennial Cookbook" (Doubleday, 1996).

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin (such as Knox)

4 1/2 cups tomato juice

1/4 cup wine vinegar

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Pinch of cayenne pepper

2 large tomatoes, peeled, chopped and drained

1/2 cup finely chopped scallions

3/4 cup finely chopped green bell pepper

3/4 cup peeled, finely chopped cucumber, drained

1/4 cup finely chopped pimento

Oil for the ring mold

Parsley for garnish

In a small saucepan, soften the gelatin granules in 1 cup of the tomato juice for 5 minutes. Then heat until the mixture simmers and the gelatin dissolves. Remove from the heat. Combine in a bowl with the remaining tomato juice, the vinegar, crushed garlic, salt and black and red peppers.

Chill until the mixture begins to set. Then fold in the tomatoes, scallions, green pepper, cucumber and pimento. Pour the mixture into an oiled 6-cup ring mold. Chill for about 3 hours or until firm. Unmold the salad, garnish with parsley and serve with Avocado Cream (recipe follows).

Per serving (based on 6): 72 calories, 5 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 1359 mg sodium AVOCADO CREAM (6 to 8 servings)

1/2 cup mashed ripe avocado

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dash cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients and blend well. Use with preceding recipe.

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 72 calories, 1 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 190 mg sodium SUNSET FRUIT SALAD (10 servings)

This was created in 1931, when such salads were at the height of their popularity. At that time, almost a third of the salad recipes in the average cookbook were gelatin-based. The salad reflects the colors of the setting sun, according to the authors of "Celebrating 100 Years of Jell-O: America's Most Famous Dessert" (Publications International, Ltd., 1997), from which it was taken.

2 cups boiling water plus 1/2 cup cold

1 package (4-serving size) cranberry-flavor sugar-free, low-calorie or regular gelatin dessert

1 can (8 ounces) sliced peaches in juice, drained and chopped

1 package (4-serving size) orange-flavor sugar-free, low-calorie or regular gelatin dessert

1 can (8 ounces) crushed pineapple in juice, undrained

Stir 1 cup of the boiling water into the cranberry-flavor gelatin granules in a medium bowl for at least 2 minutes until completely dissolved. Stir in the 1/2 cup cold water. Refrigerate for about 45 minutes or until slightly thickened (consistency of unbeaten egg whites). Stir in the peaches. Spoon the mixture into a 5-cup mold. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes longer or until set but not firm (gelatin should stick to a finger when touched and should mound).

Meanwhile, stir the remaining 1 cup boiling water into the orange-flavor gelatin in a medium bowl for at least 2 minutes until completely dissolved. Stir in the crushed pineapple and its juice. Pour this mixture over the gelatin layer in the mold.

Refrigerate for 4 hours or until firm. Unmold. Garnish as desired.

Per serving made with regular gelatin: 82 calories, 1 gm protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 30 mg sodium LAYERED PEAR CREAM CHEESE MOLD (10 servings)

Carbonated beverages add pizzazz to molded gelatin salads. Club soda, fruit-flavored sparkling water, ginger ale or lemon-lime-flavored drinks can be substituted for all or part of the cold water. This recipe comes from "Celebrating 100 Years of Jell-O: America's Most Famous Dessert" (Publications International, Ltd., 1997).

1 can (16 ounces) pear halves, undrained

2 packages (4-serving size) lime-flavor gelatin dessert

1 1/2 cups cold ginger ale or water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup chopped pecans

Drain pears, reserving the liquid. Dice the pears; set aside. Add enough cool water to the pear liquid to make 1 1/2 cups total liquid; bring this to a boil in a small saucepan.

Stir the boiling liquid into the gelatin granules in a large bowl for at least 2 minutes until completely dissolved. Then stir in the cold ginger ale (or water) and lemon juice. Reserve 2 1/2 cups of the gelatin mixture at room temperature. Pour the remaining gelatin into a 5-cup mold. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes or until thickened (when a spoon drawn through leaves a definite impression). Arrange about 1/2 cup of the diced pears on top of the thickened gelatin in the mold.

In a large bowl with wire whisk, stir the reserved 2 1/2 cups gelatin gradually into the cream cheese until smooth. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes or until slightly thickened (consistency of unbeaten egg whites). Stir in the remaining diced pears and pecans. Spoon this mixture over the gelatin layer in the mold.

Refrigerate for 4 hours or until firm. Garnish as desired.

Per serving: 206 calories, 3 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 102 mg sodium SPARKLING BERRY SALAD (8 servings)

Fruit should be added to the gelatin after it has been chilled enough to thicken but is not yet set. This way, the fruit remains suspended in the gelatin. This recipe is taken from "Celebrating 100 Years of Jell-O: America's Most Famous Dessert" (Publications International, Ltd., 1997).

2 cups boiling diet or regular cranberry-juice cocktail

2 packages (4-serving size) of any red sugar-free, low-calorie or regular gelatin dessert

1 1/2 cups cold seltzer or club soda

1/4 cup creme de cassis liqueur (optional)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

3 cups assorted berries (blueberries, raspberries and sliced strawberries)

Stir the boiling cranberry juice into the gelatin granules in a large bowl for at least 2 minutes until completely dissolved. Stir in the cold seltzer, optional liqueur and lemon juice. Refrigerate for about 1 1/2 hours or until slightly thickened (consistency of unbeaten egg whites).

Stir in 2 cups of the berries. Spoon into a 5-cup mold. Refrigerate for 4 hours or until firm. Unmold. Top with remaining 1 cup of berries.

Per serving with regular cranberry juice and regular gelatin: 140 calories, 2 gm protein, 31 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 47 mg sodium IN THE WORDS OF THOSE MOLDED BY JELL-O

Early this month the Food section invited readers to share their Jell-O or gelatin mold memories with us. The many recollections people shared with us evoke times past:

* "In Iowa, electricity came late to small towns in the '20s. My grandmother had electricity but no appliances, just electric lights. She loved Jell-O but could make it only in the winter, when she could place the bowl of Jell-O in a snowbank so it would solidify. It was served as a dessert. She thought Jell-O was absolutely magic."

-- Odette Cranno, retired federal worker, Arlington

* "I first saw Cranberry Apple Mold and Jellied Waldorf Salad at a card club my mother and her friends had in the '40s. I thought they were elegant. When I grew up I collected copper molds and passed them on to my daughter, who still uses them. The Waldorf Salad is still our favorite."

-- Dorothy Strangl, bank officer, Gaithersburg

* "Molded salads were everyday fare when I grew up in Albany, N.Y., during the '30s and '40s. Tomato aspic, lemon Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail folded in . . . In the '50s and '60s after I married, the range expanded: cucumber mousse mold, seafood molds, jellied chicken molds, all usually ring molds with cottage cheese, cress, etc. in the center." -- Lois Rochester, retired teacher, Charlottesville

* "For our family's holiday gatherings you could tell which season it was just by the Jell-O mold my mother made. From October through March, it was the {red} Jell-O with whole cranberries, nuts and apples. From April through September, it became red Jell-O with cream cheese and fruit cocktail." -- Rochelle Zohn, retired teacher, Fairfax County

* "My grandmother made a mold of red Jell-O, applesauce and melted cinnamon red hots. We loved it." -- Ronda Crone, homemaker, Columbia, Md.

* "Back home in Iowa in the '50s, my aunts Rebecca and Flora vied with each other at every family feast for the most stuff suspended in Jell-O' award." -- Gloria Urban, research librarian, Hagerstown, Md.

* "There was a real art to making Jell-O molds. In Newcastle, Pa., where I grew up, my mother served a beautifully arranged molded salad of lime Jell-O with grated carrots, cabbage, green onions and crushed pineapple on individual plates as part of a typical roast beef or chicken meal."

-- Marcy Levin, an intergovernmental specialist at the Corporation for National Service, D.C.

* "My all-time favorite is the {one} made in an angel-food-cake pan with all the Jell-O flavors -- cherry, grape, orange, lemon and lime -- made into cubes . . . and suspended in some sort of creamy concoction sitting on top of a graham-cracker crust. We used to beg Mom to make it."

-- Kathie Rogers, secretary, D.C.