When packaged gelatin was released commercially in the USA in 1897 it was a hit. Before then, gelled dishes were the exclusive fare of those rich enough to keep a sizeable kitchen staff. After its release gelled foods were middle class fare. The number of recipes for gelled food mushroomed. Most, gratefully, are long forgotten. A few, for reasons some of us will never fathom, cling to the solid rock of regular use.
Tomato aspic, the ruddy gelatinous material served at church picnics is one of those. A century ago it was the leading edge of the fake food wave that was to inundate the American Continent for nearly a century. Check the Joy of Cooking pages for tomato aspic and you will find a recipe using tomato juice and gelatin - producing the material we still know and hate today. But it is possible to make gellees the old fashioned way. And when one does this, the reward is great.
We explore tomato aspic less as a food than as a symbol of the lost art of good cooking - an art that was fading at the start of the twentieth century - just as interesting fresh ingredients began to be more widely available.
According to Webster's 1913 Dictionary online, Aspic is:.
One is more tempted to compare aspic today to definitions 1. or 2. than the traditional 4. Savory meat jelly is no longer savory, it no longer tastes of meat, and it contains none of the promised ingredients. It is fake food. With a fictional story we illustrate how tomato aspic might have gotten started and how it started a 'bad food' revolution in America.
Long ago and in a land across a very large and perilous ocean there lived a kind, generous woman named Madge who kept a small inn in a small town in the Valley of Kings. The kings were gone and forgotten, but the way one cooked for them lingered. Madge had learned the art of cooking for kings at the end of her grandmother's apron strings. Though she still looked youthful and spry she had over fifty years of practice making food for guests at her inn.
One day some special guests were to arrive and Madge decided to cook some nice clear consomme. But at a critical moment her cat Lucinda was run over by an oxcart. She took Lucinda to the veteranarian who declared that it was only the tail that was damaged, and only the tip of the tail. Lucinda still had nine lives left.
When Madge returned to her kitchen it was midmorning and her consomme had turned cloudy. She discovered that she did not happen to have all the materials one needs to clarify stock. " Well," she thought, "there simply is not enough time to start over; what with roasting the bones then cooking them in water with vegetables, then reducing it all again with more meat and vegetables. No, this cloudy fluid must be turned into something else."
Madge thought and thought as she slaved over her meat pies, folding the pastry over and over. Then it occurred to her. She needed a nice salad. And she had so many extra tomatoes yesterday that she had made a big lot of thick, sweet, tangy tomato juice. If she boiled it down, reducing it by half, she could then combine it with her cloudy gelee in a mold. Chilled, it would solidify, then it would melt in the mouth when served. Nobody would notice that the cloudiness, and she had just enough time to finish as the pies baked and cooled.
Well, that's what she did.
She served this tomato gelee on a bed of fresh butterhead lettuce and garnished it with freshly made mayonaise and water cress. Her guests were completely delighted.
As things go, one of them was actually a food writer for a prominent New York publication. And Madge's recipe made it into its pages. So it was scattered far and wide in America. The recipe was held up as the measure of a good cook and millions of housewives aimed to cook as well as Madge. Back then there were housewives who spent their lives in the kitchen; and there were housewives with maids who did this, so it was not so difficult to actually include this gelee in a menu.
Decades later in Menominee, late one Saturday evening , two sisters realized that they had forgotten to prepare something for tomorrow's church picnic.
"Alice, what were you planning to take to tomorrow's picnic?" asked Sarah.
Alice looked up from her embroidery as if shaken our of a dreamy sleep. "The picnic. Yes. That's tomorrow, is it?"
"We usually take that wonderful tomato gelee."
"Yes! Yes, that's it. Tomato gelee, " she said, resuming her work.
"But we don't have the gelee or the roasted bones."
"No. No, we don't. Maybe we could take some of those pickled eggs?"
"But, Alice, Mrs Gleeson always brings those. And we have only three left." Besides, she thought, Mrs. Gleeson's are better.
"We could take a cake or a casserole," suggested Alice.
"But there area always too many cakes and casseroles. That's why we always bring salad." Sarah went out into the kitchen and began rooting around. After some time she returned with a packet of gelatin and a small pitcher of tomato juice. "Why not make our gelee with this?"
Alice had no objections. So it was done. Sarah and Alice brought tomato aspic to the church picnic. And even though it was completely different from the usual fare, people oohed and ahhed just as ever. Other women coyly asked how they did it. And they bragged about how easy it was. Before long, their recipe made it into the pages of Joy of Cooking and you can read it there today. For the next seventy five years gray haired ladies took it as their divine responsibility to provide their fellow churchgoers with monstrous servings of tomato aspic at every church picnic and smorgasbord.
It is puzzling that their little scam got as far as it did, but humans have a remarkable capacity for representational memory. We love a person so a drawing of a heart makes us feel warm and fuzzy. We love tomato gelee, so its pale shadow, tomato aspic does as well. But once everyone who had tasted Madge's recipe died, the motive force behind tomato aspic died. And so did its most of its demand.
What has happened to Sarah and Alice? For deceiving a whole generation of faithful churchgoers they have been sent to culinary hell. There the Devil in the Details is having their bones roasted to prepare a delicious tomato gelee using the original recipe.
The story is a flight of fancy. We have never either tasted nor read about Madge's famous recipe. But we believe that anyone who roasts and boils chicken bones then flavors the warm liquid with some tomato paste will produce a rosy, melt in your mouth gelee that beats the heck out of that aspic stuff. Or cook down the bones in V8 juice and put the fluid through a very fine sieve before chilling in small ramekins. The only downside of 'make your own' is that you will need one chicken complete skeleton for each 6 diners.
Boiling some chicken bones in V8, straining, and chilling the result is not that difficult; I have roasted and boiled bon es many times while watching West Wing. If you need a really clear aspic you might use water or clear stock for boiling and follow the instructions in Julia Child's Art of Frech Cooking pg111, for clarifying stock. Alternatively, might you strain it a tomatoed stock through a fine sieve then a coffee filter or two. A third idea is to add whole dried tomatoes to the pot. As the water extracts flavor from the bones it will extract flavor and color from the dried tomatoes. Regardless of the method, clarification and will produce a silkier mouth feel, and being able to see through the aspic allows for some additional drama in presentation.
We do not know whether some small amount of gelatin will have to be added to get this gellee to set. Child recommends chilling a small sample to see if it sets, which is prudent. Add as much as one envelope of gelatin per two cups of liquid. To enhance the flavor, add a dash of Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar , Tamari, Cognac or Sherry. Shrimp, crab, ripe tomato, avocado, egg, roe, poached fish, poached fowl; this is the complete list of things that can go into tomato aspic. To the idea of crunchy vegetables in the aspic just say 'no.' Lettuce, parsley, watercress, thin cucumber slices, braised celery or endive, mayonaise, and fresh herbs such as thyme, chervil, celery leaf go with perfectly. Go further afield at your own hazard.
What's wrong with tomato aspic? Texture and Flavor.
As a note, I recently prepared a delicious stock from the bones of a roasted chicken. I took a pint of it, added 12 oz V8, reduced for an hour, then added 4 tablespoons of kudzu starch, and chilled it. The result had a delightful melt-in the mouth texture. It had the flavor of V8 and good chicken broth, but it was only edible when it was combined as follows: two parts tuna fish, one part mayonnaise, one part aspic.
We remain hopeful that aspic is a substance that can be rendered edible, but we have begun losing faith.
Eat well and prosper.
Emeril's Chicken Galantine- A confusing recipe which misses the opportunity of using the poaching liquid in the aspic, it's still a great show.
Aspic Done Right - Poached eggs and prawns molded into a real transparent gelee. (page twelve of a Google search on aspic.)
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.