At one time, in the not-so-distant past, an aspic represented the pinnacle of a five-star dining experience. These days, the thought of eating meat and vegetables suspended in clear meat-flavored gelatin tends to elicit more shudders than cheers. But even if you can’t think of anything more disgusting than aspic, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by these carefully constructed, molded monstrosities and start wondering who the mad genius was who thought that suspending pieces of food inside an elaborately molded ring of gelatin was a good idea in the first place. Well, you can blame a French dude named Marie-Antoine Carême.
Before diving into the history of aspic, it’s worthwhile to take a quick step back to talk about aspic itself. It’s a jiggling mass of something gelatinous with pieces of meat or slices vegetables floating inside.
“The principle aspic I'm aware of is a tomato aspic,” says Bill Smith, owner of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and an expert in Southern cooking and comfort food. “That's the one everyone makes a face and shivers when you say tomato aspic to them. It often has sliced olives, as I remember. My grandmother used to always have aspics. It would jiggle at you at the table.”
Aspics are made of gelatin, most often served in the shape of a fancy mold, but not all gelatins are aspics. Gelatin generally refers to sweet or non-savory dishes, like a Jell-O salad with marshmallows and cottage cheese. Aspic, on the other hand, is savory, traditionally made with some kind of animal stock, be it chicken, pork, or beef, and, one could argue, comes from much fancier roots.
Aspics were first made in the 19th century, but, at the time, brown paper packets of gelatin didn’t exist, so making gelatin was an incredibly time-intensive process that required boiling animal bones and hooves—the collagen extracted from this process is how gelatin is derived (and why it’s not vegetarian). The broth simmered for several hours until it became a protein-rich and velvety. It was then clarified, and, once cooled, the liquid set into what most folks would recognize as gelatin. And even though aspic-like dishes were being prepared in Europe as early as the 15th century, it was that French dude and chef Carême who perfected this process, calling it chaud-froid, or “hot and cold,” essentially referring to the process of cooking followed by cooling.
Carême worked in the imperial court of Napoleon and created the concept of modern haute cuisine, mastering the art of the aspic along the way. Most often served in the form of towering molds with countless layers of ingredients solidified within, aspics were also used to glaze meats and preserve them within this glossy, glassy jelly. The possibilities for aspics in Carême’s kitchen were seemingly endless.
In The Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner from the Original of M. A. Carême, published in 1834, a year after the chef died, there is an entire section devoted to aspics, with diagrams. The process, as described, is intense, but the possibilities of aspic are also somewhat endless. Carême included a recipe for “Aspic of Cocks’ Combs and Stones filled with a Blanquette of Poultry,” which the chef suggests that you could also fill with “lambs’ or calves’ sweetbreads or brains” or even “with the fillets of fish only.”
That speaks to the endless variations of aspics, a reality with which Mitchell Owens, aspic enthusiast and decorative arts editor at Architectural Digest, has become very familiar. Owens and his husband Matthew Zwissler have amassed a sizable collection of 19th and 20th century cookbooks and regularly make aspics at their country home in Sharon Springs. The list of historic recipes is long and includes, “tomato aspic; aspic encasing a mosaic of cooked carrots, beans, and the like; poached chicken blanketed in silky tarragon-flavored aspic; and chaud-froid de filets de soles, which I found in an 1860s French cookery book and is sole fillets in cream-infused aspic.”
There are even breakfast aspics, like this recipe for poached eggs, clementine style and suspended in aspic jelly, from a 1898 cookbook. Owens has made a similar dish himself: “I’ve made poached eggs in aspic a few times; they are strangely beautiful and oddly Surrealistic in appearance, like something Salvador Dalí's cook would have whipped up.”
Aspics started to change, though, with the advent of the industrial revolution—it was in this period that the once haute dish, enjoyed only by members of the court and aristocracy, got democratized and, in some ways, diluted.
The manufacture of powdered gelatin was patented by Peter Cooper, the American industrialist, in 1845, and this innovation eliminating the need to boil down animal parts for hours and hours to get gelatin. It also meant that not all gelatin had to be savory, and sweet gelatin dishes were created around this time, too. By the early 20th century, everyday brands and companies started promoting aspics to the public as a way to sell more chillers and refrigerators. General Electric, for example, published a cookbook in 1930 called The ‘Silent Hostess’ Treasure Book to “assist you in making the greatest use of your General Electric Refrigerator.” Most of the recipes in the salad section are aspics, including a page devoted to variations on a tomato aspic, which could be much more easily prepped with the advent of a cold fridge.
But even with technological improvements like fridges and powdered gelatin, aspics never really stopped being a high-falutin’ showstopper of a dish. Smith, for example, has memories of eating aspic at his grandmother’s house as part of a formal midday meal, white tablecloths and silverware and all. “It was sort of rarified,” he says. “It’s like beaten biscuits. You don’t have time to bother with that stuff. It has that snooty association with it, as well. You wouldn’t find it in a carpenter’s lunchbox, you know?”
That is because no technological innovation can really speed up the process of setting gelatin, even if the gelatin doesn’t have to be made at home with animal bones.
The long process of putting together a proper aspic, however, is part of the lingering appeal. “I want menus and recipes that challenge me in the kitchen and surprise our guests at the table, that have a bit of grandeur and spark conversations and that will, one hopes, be remembered. Nothing does that like a recipe that’s on few people’s radar,” says Owens. “Thus, aspic.”
And sure, the jiggliness might be kind of off-putting, but if done well, an aspic can be unforgettable. “I compare aspic to fruitcake because people say they hate it, but they eat it anyway,” Smith says. “There’s nothing wrong with it. If it tastes good, it’s fine, and that’s all that really matters.”