My strange obsession: Aspic

The gelatin-based confection is a ticket to small-scale opulence

I have a modest proposal: consider aspic, the vibrant jellied dish that is my current obsession, for your next culinary project.

Hear me out!

The word “aspic” inevitably conjures up a sense of dinner party dread, or visions of mid-century advertisements, of technicolor jello stuffed with hot dogs and peas and marshmallows.

One might think of the numerous aspics showcased on the @70sdinnerparty Instagram page, such as the “24-Hour Vegetable Salad,” a rather classy walnut and apple-stuffed creation topped with what could conceivably be jellied mayonnaise, and an intriguing recipe for “Illuminated Gelatin.”

But what is aspic? It is in fact “meat jello,” made from gelatin and broth. Gelatin is a hydrocolloid, derived from animal bones and skin. When heated with broth, the collagen in gelatin mingles with the liquid, creating a gentle jelly when cooled. Various bite-sized ingredients are then suspended in the mixture. When set, aspic is served cold, jiggling slightly. None of this I refute.

Maybe a better question, then, would be: “Why aspic?”

I recently embarked on an aspic escapade myself. My roommate and I decided to cheat a little bit and use store-bought gelatin and broth instead of taking the full gourmand route of boiling veal knuckles for hours. We even acquired a bundt pan for the occasion!

Any kind of container works, however — like sourdough, aspic can easily be dressed up or down, and allows for all kinds of skill levels and modifications. For vegetarians, seaweed-derived agar can be used in place of gelatin. It truly is a dish for all seasons and occasions.

Building the inner structure of the aspic was certainly the most challenging part of the process. Primarily, if you’re attempting a more elegant look over an overstuffed one, you have to gradually build up the jelly as you add your morsels to hold them in place.

We quickly learned that aspic really is a craft. It necessitates a long process, skillfully placed ingredients, and careful colour choices in order to create a distinctive picture. Aspic demands an attention to the decorative — as MIT professor Eugenie Brinkema has noted in her book The Forms of the Affects, the jelly is both a culinary medium and an aesthetic showcase.

And yet there is always something to be gleaned beyond the dichotomy of “gross” or “tasty.” What value is there in eating something you do not find that appetizing? No, our aspic was not miraculously delicious, nor did we expect it to be. But it felt delicious to orchestrate the event of aspic, and to try and articulate what about it specifically prompted a sensation of disgust.

We all agreed that the contrast between the meaty taste and the cold temperature was the most unsettling element. I’ll go out on a limb and say that our aspic seemed to inspire a kind of affectionate disgust.

So, why aspic? Aspic is not simply a food — that’s almost beside the point. Aspic is delightfully absurd. Aspic is an experience. Aspic is an event. And I think we should all indulge more often in such low-stakes aesthetic experiences, in small-scale opulent events of our own design.


Graphic by James Fay

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