The Most Versatile Ingredient of All

I was rummaging in the cupboard the other day, undoubtedly searching for dark chocolate, when a box of gelatine fell to the floor. The box hadn’t been used since my jelly-binge last winter-  the haskap jelly, the blood orange jelly, the whole podcast episode on the Jell-O family. But my mind skipped over all of that and went straight to my days as a synchronized swimmer:

My team members and I are perched on hotel room chairs, hair slicked into wet buns. We’re wearing magenta bathing suits striped with blue sequins. Towels are wrapped around our shoulders. The electric kettle whistles and hot water is poured into a measuring cup filled with sachets of powdered gelatine. A mother stirs the thick, translucent mixture, just enough (over stirring creates bubbles and you do not want bubbles on your bun). Another mother paints the warm gelatine over our wet hair with a clean paint brush. Gooey droplets drip down our neck. I swipe them away with a finger and play with the now rubbery gelatine. Finally, bedazzled head pieces are secured around the bun with bobby pins. I look it the mirror. We were the junior team, not the shining lights of our club. But I thought we looked like (waterproof) Olympians.

“The bun, the make-up, it’s all part of the performance ritual,” Sara said as she twisted my wet hair into a bun. “Push against the pins, provide resistance,” she said, bobby pins between her teeth. We were going to a Halloween dance fundraiser and I was dressing up as Carolyn Waldo, my synchronized swimming hero who had won two golds for Canada at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Sara was a professional dancer – she’s pulled, twisted and pinned hair millions of times before. Never, however, had she water-proofed a bun with gelatine. But artistic friends understand creative vision. They understand the need for authenticity. They understand method acting.

As she painted my hair, I told her about my week:

I bedazzled a bathing suit.

I borrowed a head piece from a synchro mom.

I bought a nose plug.

I borrowed a Team Canada pool-side warm up jacket.

I watched make-up tutorials.

I surrendered and had my makeup done.

I borrowed a golden (ski racing) medal from son #2.

I bought 2 boxes of Knox gelatine.

When all was said and done, my hair was hard-crack shellacked and bubble-free. Admittedly I looked more like a ‘scary second-placed rival’ than Carolyn herself. But I was close. And later that night, as I popped up through the pretend pool on the dance floor with my arm outstretched and forced smile in place, a forty-something guy dressed in lederhosen mouthed, “hey are you Carolyn Waldo?”

Later that night I stood under the shower until the hard-cracked gelatine had melted and I could feel my hair again. I had a new appreciation for gelatine ratios- a single sachet creates a delicately wobbly dessert, while 4 sachets will coat hair in waterproof armour.

And the smell alone, it can take you back to those days when one could be an Olympian.

PS If you too would like to water-proof your bun for an authentic synchro look,

  • pull damp, combed hair into a tight bun and secure with bobby pins and a hair net
  • combine 4 sachets of gelatine in a bowl or wide-mouthed jar
  • add boiling water just to cover powder and stir gently until gelatine is dissolved. A chopstick works well for this. Do not over-stir – over-stirring creates bubbles and bubbles on a bun look amateur
  • using a clean paint or pastry brush, paint gelatine over hair, bun included
  • finish the look by pinning an ‘adornment’ around the bun
  • leave the gelatine to dry in the bowl. When dry, it will pull easily away
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