The ham got me thinking. I guess there are a lot of food horrors brewing in this stew of a brain of mine and as Rob suggests, "you gotta let it out". Thus, the subject of today's amusement, amazement and discussion: Aspic (mispronounced by many as "aspect"...which kills me...). Aspic has a weird place in my precollege days--and then re-emerged fully formed and yet in a new personna in the early 80s when I was in Corning. More on all of that.
The nice thing we all need to remember is that 1) aspect or is it aspic is passe, out outre, done for, not the thing so we need not sweat having to confront this at our table or anyone else's (though the thought did cross my mind that I should take one of these babies to the Village Dish to Pass and see if anyone would be brave enough...but it seems like a lot of effort for an answer we all know. No.) There the tender aspic would be, my aspect, glittering and jiggling in the late spring evening surrounded by quinoa this, pasta that, steamed this, sliced that. The last girl at the party, our aspic--all alone in the corner with not even a nibble taken out of it's shaking sides. I am tearing up just thinking of the sadness.
Aspect. Aspic. Here is why aspic was prized and created in our household growing up.
1. First and foremost (as with most things), these babies were cheap. All you needed was a few (the pros like my Mother had 3-4) molds: a round one "ring mold", a fish shaped one, and two domed/ or decorative ones that looked like large Whitman's Sampler chocolates. Kind of medium sized, but enough to make a big splash on the buffet table. The ingredients were pretty low grade and cheap. Leftovers were fair game. All you needed were the solids and the liquids-- all of which were variable. You could slam out an aspic with a pile of chopped celery, green olives (with the pimentos), some chopped hard boiled eggs, a little carrot or peppers (green only as we didnt know the red ones at the time), and some sort of liquid to suspend the one or two packages of gelatin in. One of the favorites at my house was either V-8 Juice or canned beef consumme (which to all of our delight, already had gelatin in it...and you could, on a hot day, but the whole darn can in the refrigerator to solidify, and eat with a spritz of lemon juice (my toes are currently curling up).
2. Flashy dish that let everyone know you were a pro in the kitchen. Who wouldn't be floored by a dish that was colorful and a really complex shape, that jiggled and had nuggets of deliciousness as little surprises in every cool bite. It is a colorful thing that you can garnish the hell out of. Case in point, the fish mold. There was an extra special aspic, "Salmon Mousse" (read fish aspic) created with canned salmon (that is the solid) which was pureed in the blender with some other goop (read maybe mayo and some sort of liquid (of course) and the two packages of gelatin). That glop was then poured into the greased fish mold. This whole thing was then wrapped in plastic wrap and slid into the refrigerator for a day or so before the big party or gathering. It is a terrific make ahead. Too bad no one will eat it.
Unmolding the jewel: The real fun comes when you gently place the gelatinized canned fish mess in a mold in warm water for just a short time to loosen things up and then invert it quickly onto a plate to be decorated (in our case, sliced radishes and olives--the picture does wonders with almonds and the happy pimento showing us how we should feel to eat this marvel of culinary engineering). There was that amazing fear just before you invert the plate that either you have melted the aspic so when you invert it, it just keeps running and running off the plate. The other horror was that you would miss the plate and hit the sink--or floor and not be able to recover the thing as it was all pretty much what you see is what you get. Then there was the gelatin malfunction also resulting in glop falling out of the mold--and not the glorious form you expected. No matter how malformed the aspic was after its liberation from the mold, there was the prospect of decoration, of parsley and of some accompanying sauce to fill the counterspace on the decorated plate. If it didn't taste good, at least it could amuse our guests.
Salmon Mousse was put on the buffet table but could be put out for cocktails if you were having a big group--or just wanted to up the game a bit. Aspic was often a side dish for luncheons (my Mother had quite a few of them for women, and the menus were delicate and odd--things that would never arrive at the dinner table and seemed like combinations not meant to happen but somehow, this was the stuff women liked and no one else). Aspic and combo soups (a favorite was a blend of cream of chicken soup, applesauce, there might have been consomme and curry powder) were top of the list with salad parings with cheap (read bitter) citrus crowning the spinach or iceburg lettuce.
I must not be a real girl because I get all shaky and quivery thinking that this might have been a treat at one time. Where were the tall glasses of wine, fresh salsa and tortilla chips?
3. Even if your family hates aspic, you can give it as a token of love to your friends. Both my grandfathers died within 6 months of each other--one in Charleston WV, and the other in Pittsburgh. We, the kids, were not included in the Charleston family gathering but kept home. The Pittsburgh family funeral was in the summer a little over two weeks after my eldest cousin, Happy was married in Rhode Island. As was the case, no one was anticipating The Colonel (my grandfather was called The Colonel--no other name) to die--but he did in his quiet " no one pay any heed to me" way--and my grandmother, the Matriarch, known to us as Grammy (but didn't fool any of us) kicked into gear with all of the odd family traditions of what we did and did not do at funerals. I guess that is another story to pass on--but it is a full one.
However, I was in seventh grade at the time and as all the grown ups had all sorts of important things to do, I was pressed into service to "receive" flowers, the "funeral meats" and log them into a book, place them either in the kitchen /refrigerator, top off the water and put the flowers among the other floral tributes that arrived at the house.
Sure, there were the requisite pound cakes and plates of cookies, the pyrex dishes of noodly bits with ham (read casseroles) despite the sweltering heat we had that week of The Colonel's calling hours and funeral. There was fruit and some salads but the centerpiece of all of this were the plethora of aspics delivered. There were lots of them from fish to tomato to the showstopper of them all (which my mother replicated until we all forgot it) a beef consomee based aspic with curried deviiled eggs placed delicately and so stylishly in the dark confines of the sparkling gel. The eggs remained intact--as if ready for the picnic, placed almost as flies in amber--an idea of dining alfresco, but frozen in time as much as this time during the week of The Colonel was for me. This was an aspic that took our breath away. The question was how to serve it, to carve it, to present it...but I think that was figured out. So, lesson from that is, if you hate aspic, take it to a grieving family...they will thank you for it- or at least that is what you can hope for. I still think a 30 rack of Bud Heavy, a case of real with sugar Coca Cola, and a few bags of salty treats are much preferred at times of happiness and grief. If you want to lay it on, a white/garlic sheet pizza would fill the bill too. But I have no breeding.
4. According to those in the know, Jello is not Aspic. Yes, they may both jiggle but jello is more fun, has bright colors that can give you cancer, and jello is lowbrow. Jello "salad" is not salad. Jello salads may incorporate miracle post war foods such as mass produced miniature marshmallows, or canned fruit floating in thick sugary syrup, or have gingerale added in place of water to cause the Jello to tingle and sparkle...but one does not but that out for company.
Jello may be an ingredient to the creation of delightful aspics (lemon may be added to tomato juice or jazzed up with savory things) but jello by itself or even with fruit added is not aspic. Aspic shows your breeding and education (don't ask me how, it just does--so be quiet and sit down). Aspic is sophisticated like having cold consomme (jelled) with a wedge of lemon unlike green jello which is green and is green flavored. Koolaid is not elegant nor is the food version of it, jello. Aspic is the Bloody Mary to a glass of cherry Koolaid. Although I have been mean about fruit jello, I think the Jello company saw there were market opportunities with the aspic snobs and introduced some salad jello flavors such as celery and mixed vegetables to bring more folks along for the elegant, jiggly ride.
So, this is where we end today on the aspect of Aspic. Tomorrow, I will tell you about how aspic entered my life in the form of a lithe spanish man clad in an eighties, spandex leopardskin suit...and what he did with en gelee....