Does anyone want aspic on their Thanksgiving Day table? Yes, some do
There is nowhere to start a story about aspic but with an aspic. So let's imagine one, a moulded mound of gelatin placed quivering and shimmering at the centre of a holiday table, no less awkward an addition to the festivities than your brother's new girlfriend or talking politics with Uncle Jerry.
"Aspic terrifies me …" writer Philippa Snow confessed in a piece this summer for Eater London. "It can't help but make me think of David Cronenberg, or science-fiction, or the kind of food that's served in futuristic prisons in bad novels. Soylent green was people, yes; but aspic looks as though it might as well be."
As Tatyana Tolstaya wrote in her short story, Aspic, in the New Yorker in 2016, "the name of the dish itself makes the temperature of your soul drop, and no thick gray goat-hair shawl will save you."
When it comes to maligned foods, we ain't just talking Brussels sprouts.
Aspic dates back hundreds of years but in North America achieved the height of its fame in the 1950s and 1960s, when increasingly complex and inventive jellified creations became the trembling centrepiece of every well-appointed table.
The 1963 Joys of Jell-O cookbook features remarkable recipes, such as Ring-Around-the-Tuna, Hawaiian Surprise and Molded Chef's Salad, in which a meal of ham, cheese and vegetables is suspended uncannily in a ring of neon Jell-O, like scraps of debris floating through space.
But while aspics were then heralded as a stylish way to add "a dazzling, delicious rainbow of fresh vegetables for your dinner table" or "perk up the most humdrum lunch," aspic, and its closest sibling, jellied salad, soon slithered out of favour, like gelatin tipped from a mould before it is fully set.
These days, aspic is most likely to be featured in articles with such headlines as "The 9 Worst Retro Foods The Holidays Have Ever Endured," "7 Gross Foods Your Grandparents Ate" and "Taste Test From Hell: We Cooked a Bunch of Gross Recipes from the '50s." It has been referred to in this very publication as a "culinary horror show."
It was through this unflattering lens that aspic first entered Maggie Parrish's life, a technicolour curiosity frozen in time in campy ads from the 1950s and reminiscent of her grandmother's creations as "the quintessential 1950s housewife."
"I've always thought that the horror and the beauty of the intricate fifties aspics were amazing," says Ms. Parrish, who lives in Denver. "I liked the kitschiness of it, and I've always been – what's the word – amazed I think? It's like writing a novel with food. It's just so intricate, and I think that's really what pulled me in. I'm not going to lie, the horror aspect of the aspic really drew me in as well. It's the whole thing."
Ms. Parrish is the founder of Show Me Your Aspics, a Facebook group that since its founding last December has become the heart of modern jellified food fandom online, amassing close to 4,000 members and inspiring a robust community of, if not exactly aspic appreciators, at least the open-minded and aspic-curious.
"Aspic is its own unique art form to me," says Julie Stephens, who lives in Nichols, Wisc., and runs the group with Ms. Parrish. "It's horrifying and it's beautiful. It's edible. I mean, who in their right mind decides to use tuna and lime Jell-O in the same breath? The word needs to get out about that kind of thing."
Although aspic was traditionally a savoury dish (hence its even less-flattering nickname "meat Jell-O"), the world is changing, and the traditional divisions between aspic and jelly salads and even dessert jellies no longer apply. These days, basically anything in moulded gelatin form counts and will find an eager audience at Show Me Your Aspics.
If Show Me Your Aspics is becoming a thriving community, Mary Freebed Au is arguably its most popular member. The 31-year-old from Victoria has been described variously as a mad woman, a genius and "the queen of aspic," and is possibly Canada's greatest (and yes, probably only) modern abstract aspic artist.
She is an aspic provocateur, a controversial figure in what is already, by its nature, a disarming food. Her creations almost defy description, a dizzying combination of soft drinks, food chunks, flavouring, and often, glittery eyeshadow.
One, formed inside a security camera dome cover, contains "berry blend, diet peach fizzy, milk, chocolate, brandy extract, almond extract, lemon extract, mango chunks and eye shadow," and another has extracts of almond, peppermint, vanilla, blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon as well as pop, juice, fruit pieces, gold eye shadow and "mass quantities of coffee whitener."
A looming tower is composed of "water in which ginger and onions were boiled, mint, mint extract, vitamin C, black pepper, dried basil, chickpeas, a boiled onion cut into rings, salad runoff, and cashew nuts," as well as "green food colouring for aesthetics."
Her pieces evoke revulsion, confusion, fascination and love, sometimes all at once.
"Was this made for human consumption. Because it's beautiful," one person wrote, in response to a recent creation.
"this is horrifying why do I love it so much I'm so confused," wrote another.
Of particular contention is the eyeshadow, which has prompted some level of concern for the health of Mary, who unapologetically eats all of her creations but is no longer much interested in debating the food safety of shiny eyeshadow.
When newbies in the group respond with alarm, weary Show Me Your Aspics veterans jump in to explain, on Mary's behalf, that it's non-toxic mica dust and direct them to other threads where the issue has been discussed at length. You may agree on its digestibility or not, but be warned, if you harp on it too much in the group you may quickly find yourself out on your aspic.
As a group administrator announcement made clear after some particularly vigorous debate: "If anyone has any issue with Mary Freebed Au's gelatinous masterpieces and her choices of ingredients, y'all can stuff it. It's been explained what she uses over and over and over. Get over it."
In fact, the community has not only gotten over it, but has embraced her unconventional vision. One of her jellies has been compared, with seeming sincerity, to Van Gogh's painting The Starry Night.
"You are a damned visionary," a member of the group posted recently. "Thank you for posting content in here regularly and #stunting on the normies. I feel blessed and honored to view your gelatinous creations."
Mary, whose real name is Tanja Guven, says she joined the Show Me Your Aspics on a whim, and was inspired by the group to make her first aspic in June.
The University of Victoria student says that, in the midst of a very stressful time in her life, there was something about aspic she found deeply therapeutic and relaxing, because: "It's clown food."
"Aspics are a beautiful trivial art form," she said, in a conversation through Facebook messages. "They are ephemeral, and frivolous. The sight of something so luminous and shimmering is a perfect defence against tense moments."
Show Me Your Aspics' founder, Ms. Parrish, says she's watched with interest how the group has gone from primarily being about quirky vintage aspics, such as "the now posted-to-death spaghetti-O aspic" (yawn!), to something new and evolving and creative, in large part because of Mary's innovative additions.
"I appreciate her so much and what she brings to the table. People have embraced her as this really special part of the group," Ms. Parrish says. "I would like to have other Marys in the group. I would like to be another Mary in the group."
Although a package of Knox Gelatine or some neon Jell-O powder is far removed from its corporeal origins, gelatin is made through the rendering of bone and flesh, the essence of life boiled down and cheerily reconstituted into Ring-Around-the-Tuna or Hawaiian Surprise.
In a recent exchange about how different foods sink or float in gelatin, one member observed, "It's a metaphor for life."
"Lol. Aspic is life," another responded.
In fact, it kind of is.