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A Mother's Day Memory: From "the Icky Era of Aspic"

05/09/2014 11:08 am ET | Updated Jul 09, 2014
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My mother, Dolores, finally hung up her apron when she turned 88. She'd done her time.

She was a fabulous cook. Her mouth-watering repertoire of recipes included comfort foods that could be quadrupled and assembled in a vat for a crowd of growing kids: chili con carne, vegetable soup made from home-made beef stock, split pea soup with frankfurters, macaroni and cheese, and Scotch Broth augmented with a can of Campbell's. She assembled fanciful homemade birthday cakes and chocolate pudding from her 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking. My favorite dish was her cauliflower with cheddar cheese sauce.

As a young woman, my mother wanted to be a writer. To that end, she attended graduate school in the late 1940s.

Though she hadn't planned on having children, she ended up with seven of us -- from a blended family. Her brood expanded from two to six overnight in 1958, when my step-siblings came to live with us, and grew to seven a year later when our baby brother was born.

Raised Lutheran, my mother had been instilled with a powerful sense of duty. For years, she prepared meals, cleaned, sewed, and curled hair from early morning till late at night. With so many children, money was tight. So she cooked from scratch.

We never went out, except on occasion to Dick's Drive-In in Seattle. At Dick's, hamburgers were 19 cents and fries, 11 cents. To save money, we brought our own jug of reconstituted powdered milk from home.

Of all my wonderful memories of my mother's cooking, I only remember her making one outright failure of a dish: tomato aspic.

Aspic was especially popular in the 1950s, in the days when housewives were judged by their ability to cook and conserve. According to Lisa Wade, PhD, the author of "The Icky Era of Aspic," aspic is a "clear jelly typically made of stock and gelatin and used as a glaze or garnish or to make a mold of meat, fish, or vegetables."

Irma Rombauer, the author of my mom's Joy of Cooking, wrote at the start of her section on aspic: "Any clever person can take a few desolate-looking icebox left-overs and glorify them into a tempting aspic salad. For utilizing left-overs an aspic is second only to a soufflé -- well-combined scraps resulting in a dish that is sometimes as good as one composed of delicacies."

My mom's aspic did look tempting, like the Jell-O molds she usually made: black cherry with canned peaches or orange with grated carrot and pineapple. But the resemblance ended as soon as we took a bite. The aspic was a revolting concoction made from cooked tomatoes, green peppers, onion, paprika, salt, celery, green olives, shrimp, and gelatin, molded with a scalloped edge. Talk about a bait and switch! It was cold. It was slimy. And, worst of all, it wasn't sweet.

Then there was the texture, which has aptly been described as "like eating congealed blood." It was nasty.

I don't remember which of us kids uttered the first "Ewww!", who first refused to take another bite. I don't recall whether my youngest sister, who tended to throw up when things got stressful, did that evening. I wouldn't have blamed her.

What I do remember is that the aspic drove us to culinary activism. One of our older siblings painted a placard and mounted it on a stick, decrying the foul dish. I'm pretty sure it was our visionary big sister, Peggy, who around that time created a family bartering currency she called Trinks (predating Bitcoin by almost 50 years).

Six of us kids mustered next to the Hawthorn tree in front of our house -- five girls in pedal pushers and T-shirts, ages 12 to 3 -- and our 11-year-old brother in jeans and a checkered shirt. After yelling "We hate aspic!" and "No more aspic!" in the direction of the house for our mother's benefit, we headed up the street, chanting our slogans, announcing our displeasure to the world.

I wish someone had taken a photo of us that evening, the ragged band of exuberant children -- two blonde, two redhead, and two brunette -- marching through our neighborhood. With its elegant houses, manicured gardens, and quiet streets -- the same streets where we trick-or-treated for UNICEF -- it was an unlikely venue for civil unrest.

No one tried to stop us. I'm sure the exceedingly proper lady across the street, who employed a manservant from the Philippines, thought us ill-bred. But, secretly, I think our parents were amused by our passion and ingenuity.

I have no idea what inspired my mother to serve aspic to a pack of ingrate children. She may have seen it as a creative alternative to the routine rotation of dishes. Or maybe she concocted it because it was summer and she assumed a cold dish would be welcome. Whatever her reasoning, our insurrection got results. She never made aspic again.