The Lost art of Aspic

Flavors pop in this raspberry walnut combination in honey aspic was made from gelatin, fruit, nuts, a teaspoon of honey, and a half cup of water.
Eggs, celery, dill, red peppers and salt flavor this savory aspic.

Recently I wandered into the Detroit Institute of the Arts to take in their newest exhibits. As always, they were impressive, but a trip to the third floor and the displays on late 17th century France left a lasting impression. Specifically, a computerized rendition of an aristocratic multicourse meal and the use of aspic in nearly every course had me wondering–what ever happened to aspic? The last I’d thought of it was a 70s album titled Lark’s Tongue in Aspic--the title being a reflection of the enormous waste associated with the greediest people consuming an esoteric portion of beautiful creatures.

A trip down aspic memory lane reveals much about this touted dish, which fell from aristocrat grace as soon as it evolved into Jell-O. Aspic is a gel made from boiled bones or shells. Veal, pigs, and seafood were popular sources of aspic. Aspic making was a time consuming process back in the day but provided a collagen rich medium to suspend and preserve savory and sweet items. Chemically, the bones are broken down into collagen fibers which hook up with each other, not as bone strands but as a cross linked gel. Click here for more information and drawings. It’s a little like making slime or Silly Putty, but this process is much older and unlike the slime or putty–which you’d never want to eat– gelatin is full of useful amino acids. It’s nutritious.

Aspic artistry lent itself to colorful displays that were bursting with flavor–and zero carbs holding it together. It could even be applied to individual bites as a thin preservative coating because aspic seals out air and bacteria.

Along with the aspic came the mold, and the gorgeous display of a shimmering aspic packed with a mixture of delights. Even into the 60s, when aspic gently fell into unpopularity, these molds were proudly hung in the kitchen of many homes.

According to this excellent article, aspic inched towards mass production and lost snob appeal when chemist Peter Cooper devised dried, prepackaged, easy to dissolve gelatin in 1845.

Fifty years later, he sold his patents to a cough syrup company. The owner advocated this as a dessert base and his wife developed the sugary version named it Jell-O. It didn’t take off as a product until it was sold to a more savvy businessman in the early 1900s. Once aspic became Jell-O and widely sold, aspic faded into near obscurity. Now people take collagen powder to restore their skin when they could easily be embracing the age old art of aspic. Does gelatin aid digestion? Many experts think it does. Other virtues attributed to gelatin include better skin elasticity and increased bone strength.

If you want to make your own aspic which looks like a horrific process, here’s a site with a recipe.

For more information on Jell-O and its history, go here.

There are plenty of aspic recipes out there. Tomato aspic is a Southern dish. It looks like something to serve on Halloween but I’m sure it’s healthy.

A new aspic enthusiast, I prefer to start with packaged sugarless gelatin and add my own inspiration. Your creation will set up in about 4 hours is surprisingly filling and satisfying. Happy aspicing!

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