It’s been 14 years since Seattle’s Ken Jennings became a record-breaking Jeopardy champion, winning 74 consecutive games and more than $3 million. But he’s kept his fame alive, appearing on tons of talk and quiz shows, writing 12 books, and now a new podcast with Seattle rocker John Roderick, called Omnibus.
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But I wanted to know where his knack for trivia began.
“Trivia kids are born, they’re not made,” Jennings said. “You just know if you had that kind of kid who’s always dragging the Guinness Book of World Records around and annoying mom and dad with facts about polar bears or whatever. I was very much that kid. We lived overseas. Our only contact to US culture was Army TV and radio because there are a bajillion US servicemen in Korea.”
“As a result, me and all my friends were obsessed with Jeopardy,” he said. “Every day after school at at four, that’s what the Army put on TV. We would run home after school and there was only one thing to watch. We all watched Jeopardy and we were an obsessive fan club of Jeopardy, even at 10 years old.”
On each episode of Jeopardy, there’s a segment where host Alex Trebek greets the contestants and asks them to tell a little story about their lives. Competing on 75 episodes, the well of Jennings’ personal stories started to run dry.
“I remember one time he got fed up and he was like, ‘Ken, is there anything you want to ask me?'” Jennings recalls. “I had no idea this was coming. I hemmed and hawed for five, 10 seconds, it seemed like forever, and I finally said, ‘Well, what did you have for breakfast this morning, Alex.’ And I’ll never forget what he said to me. A Diet Pepsi and a Baby Ruth. The breakfast of champions.”
Ken Jennings’ last meal
When he was a Jeopardy contestant, Jennings lived in Utah. One of the only regions in the country that stumps me in the category of regional foods.
“Utah has regional food,” Jennings said. “Do you know what it is? Jell-O!”
“Utah is well-known for its bizarre Jell-O concoctions, like, from a 1958 ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ magazine,” he said. “My mom makes a Jell-O that has black cherry Jell-O with cubes of cream cheese, slivered almonds and some kind of canned cherry and then some Dr. Pepper or something in it.”
Jennings is the latest guest on my podcast, Your Last Meal. Now, Jell-O is not his last meal, but it’s too iconic a food to pass up, so it’s history and cultural impact is heavily featured in the episode. Jennings and Lynne Belluscio, executive director of the country’s one and only Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, New York, both say Jell-O is very popular with Mormons.
“Jell-O seems to be more popular in Utah, Salt Lake City than any other area,” Belluscio said.
She says Jell-O is cheap, so it’s easy to feed big, Mormon families.
“You know, I think Mormons, like many American religious groups, really lag behind the culture by a few decades,” Jennings said. “And you can really see it in the food. It’s Jell-O salads, it’s cream of mushroom based casseroles.”
The region has even officially adopted it.
“The year before the Salt Lake City Olympics, there was a group of students who decided they were going to petition the Utah legislature,” Belluscio said. “They got enough signatures and so Jell-O became the official state snack of Utah.”
If you want to hear my full interview with Ken Jennings, and learn the history of Jell-O, listen to my podcast Your Last Meal on iTunes or anywhere you get podcasts. Or you can text the word KEN to 98973 and we’ll text you the episode!