For proof of our young nation’s insecurity, one need go no further than the wobble of aspic.
A savory jelly, properly made by boiling calves’ feet or pigs’ trotters or any other disgusting animal bit that contains a lot of collagen, aspic is most often set in a mold. Within its cool glop sit pieces of meat or fish, eggs or veggies. The original idea was to preserve them, sealing out air and bacteria. A liver pate, for example, turns crusty when exposed to air, but encase it in aspic and it will stay as fresh as a mummy.
The word itself comes from the Greek aspis, which means “shield,” although it also reminded chefs of snakes (its cold blood and weird colors, and maybe the “asp” syllable), so they often molded it in the shape of a coiled snake. Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi waxed poetic about a tenth-century aspic made by boiling carp heads in spices, the fish tongues and lips kept on the fire long enough to steep and gelatinize. Reddened with saffron, the result was “like ruby on the platter,” he wrote, “vibrantly red, shimmering on silver.”
That brings up—well, breakfast, but also another use of aspic: to line a silver or gold tray, protecting it from the delicacies it served. This sort of shielding makes sense, as does the use of aspic to prevent meat from spoiling. All manner of aspics show up in nineteenth-century French haute cuisine—even “oeufs en gelée,” dunking poached eggs in goo—and they also found a place in Eastern Europe and Asia. Britain went crazy over aspic during the Industrial Revolution—why? Because all that mass processing of dead animals was providing lots of gelatin. Suddenly there were recipes and demos and free samples. “Nothing is more tempting in appearance, in flavour, and in coolness,” wrote a gastronomist in the Essex Standard in June 1888.
But aspic reached America in the early twentieth century, by which time refrigeration was more than adequate. So why did we bother? A headline in Biloxi, Mississippi’s Daily Herald, May 9, 1904, offers a clue: “Dainty Dinner Menu Such as Would Tempt a King’s Appetite.” We knew how Henry VIII loved his wine jelly; how truffled aspics were served in eighteenth-century French and Russian courts; how aspic with boiled beef was gobbled up by the Austrian imperial family at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna.
And so we stole aspic to make our ever-aspiring middle class feel grand.
In July 1914, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reminded its eager readers that “aspic jelly plays an important part in cold dishes served at formal English functions, and while it is dainty and appetizing in appearance, it is distinctly nutritious.” We ached to be dainty. And royal. And leisured. By the fifties, meat aspic and tomato aspic was cropping up regularly on restaurant menus and fancied dinner parties.
It is not our craven envy, aspiration, and imitation that bother me, but the fact that we invariably choose the wrong stuff to imitate. Why not Vienna’s grand balls with swirling waltzes, or the exquisite courtesy with which members of Britain’s parliament skewer one another? No, we chose aspic. A gelatinous horror that might as well be eyeballs.
And we proceeded to mess it up with shortcuts. Knox powdered a Sparkling Granulated Gelatin to save impatient cooks, and Jell-O soon followed. As more women began working outside the home, they were promised that a nice Jell-O salad would impress their guests without taking too much effort.
The bright sweet gelatin we found so cheerful was the real abomination, points out chef Bonnie Morales. Taking an animal product and sugaring it up with some fruit? But we forgot it was gross, because it gave us spectacular results without much time or effort.
Even chefs forgot how to do a nice aspic, instead combining gelatin and water in excessive amounts. The result? “Extremely firm and flavorless glazes,” scolds Garde Manger. No more slow boils, no more clarification with egg whites. “Aspic was being mishandled.”
There are three types of aspic, Garde Manger continues: delicate (slopping about on the plate), sliceable (molded in a terrine), and inedible (which, if you ask me, covers all three categories). “There is no reason for a bland and rubbery aspic.”
Face it: there is no longer any reason for aspic at all.
It is one more cultural practices we deem elegant because we have forgotten that it began with raw necessity. Romantic horse-and-carriage rides were once a bone-jouncing means of daily transport. Men walked on the outside, closest to the street, because the night water in the chamber pots was sloshed out from upstairs windows.
Before Coleman coolers, an aspic solved a picnic menu. Before refrigeration, aspic kept people from hurling rotted meat. It made sense to boil dried stag antlers or pull isinglass from the swim bladder of a sturgeon. We no longer have to live that way.
Yet “meat jelly is having a moment,” Food and Wine announced last May, proffering as proof “the lacquered, artfully layered half domes” at Maison Nico in San Francisco. A layered lobster flan topped with seaweed-flavored at Christopher’s in Phoenix. Pork terrine set in aspic at Chicago’s Dear Margaret. Aspics featuring turbot or suckling pig, crafted by chef Ryan Epp at Per Se and Roister. I was served a blob of it myself at a recent dinner at the St. Louis Club.
Historian Ken Albala, aka Jiggle Daddy, is so fascinated, he wrote a book about The Great Gelatin Revival. The artificial glow of Jell-O’s lurid colors once represented progress and modernity, he notes, but lost favor when frustrated cooks overdid it (the classic example being tuna encased in lime Jell-O). With the mercy of time, the culinary aesthetic softened, emphasizing nature and artisanal craft.
But now? Aspic fits the high-tech zeitgeist, Albala explains. Gastro Obscura even put its new book cover in a jelly cake for Instagram. Shimmery and weird, gelatins intrigue our hypervisual culture. Acclaimed chefs rationalize the return by the sheer amount of time and technique a good aspic requires; patrons are wowed by anything that takes five days to do right. And aspic is now being lauded as “gut healing,” rich in amino acids and nutrients, naturally Keto and Paleo.
I think I prefer the days we longed to live as landed gentry.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.