The plan for this week’s meal from the very high-toned Nashville Seasons was a selection of the sorts of dishes that might be served at a ladies’ spring tea on the terrace of some fine old Nashville plantation-style home in the early 1960s. And an occasion like that, my friends, calls for an aspic.
These days, you’re most likely to encounter aspic either in The Gallery of Regrettable Food, or in a former Soviet state (a couple of my friends spent time there, and independently informed me that aspic dishes were both abundant and uniformly awful). However, for most of the 20th century, aspic dishes commonly turned up in American cookbooks and women’s magazines, until, for reasons unknown to this day, the nation collectively came to its senses.
Of the many aspic recipes featured in Nashville Seasons, this one offended my sensibilities least, and in fact, seemed like it had the potential to be both savory and refreshing.
Tomato Aspic I
2 packages lemon Jello
4 cups tomato juice
1/3 of a large size cucumber
1/3 of a medium onion
1/3 of a green pepper (optional)
2 cups shredded lettuce
Dash of ground red pepper to taste
Heat two cups of the tomato juice. Add to Jello and dissolve thoroughly, then add two cups of cold tomato juice. Grind cucumber, onion, green pepper, and lettuce in a meat grinder and add to tomato juice mixture. Add red pepper and pour in a large mold (or this amount will make 10 small molds). Put in refrigerator to congeal and serve with a spot of mayonnaise on a crisp lettuce leaf.
-Mrs. Robert W. Bolster
(A brief note about unmolding an aspic: Loosen the edges of the mold with a warm knife, then plunge the mold into a bowl of warm water for 10 seconds. It should pop right out.)
After I’d unmolded the aspic, I called Brady in to come see. He regarded it for a moment, eyebrow raised and lips curled, before saying, “Well, it looks like the devil’s own sphincter.” Perhaps it was this remark which impeded my enjoyment of the tomato aspic, and not the fact that it was a slippery, quivering, blood-red, and possibly sentient monstrosity, but I don’t think so. I really cannot find words to describe the experience of eating aspic other than “unsettling.”
Into the trash it went – I called it an interesting lesson in culinary history, Brady called it grounds for divorce.
It did help matters somewhat that we had these little cocktail biscuits to serve as aspic chasers.
Sesame Seed Biscuit
2 cups flour
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 tsp. salt
Dash of red pepper
1 cup sharp cheese, grated
1/2 cup roasted sesame seed
Mix flour, shortening, salt, and pepper. Add cheese and roasted sesame seed. Roll on floured board very thin and cut in small round wafers. Place in biscuit pan and cook slowly in 300 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Before removing from pan and while hot, sprinkle with salt. Makes several dozen. These may be kept in covered tin, and run into slow oven to crisp before serving. Good with cocktails.
-Mrs. John M. Ezzell
You might notice a serious omission in this recipe, namely, something to bind the dough together. I added a few tablespoons of ice water, just enough to hold the crumbs together. Make sure you roll them very thin, and err on the side of overbaking – they’re crispier that way. We took the leftovers to a beer-tasting party at a friend’s house, and what do you know, they are VERY good with cocktails. There was not a biscuit left at the end of the night.
Running a close second in sheer number to aspic dishes in Nashville Seasons are variations on the avocado salad. This uncredited recipe featured four different suggested fillings, including one involving aspic. I opted for chicken.
An Avocado Well-Filled
Peel and half 3 avocados, place on a bed of lettuce and fill with the following:
1 1/2 cups chopped cooked chicken
6 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 hard cooked egg, grated
1 cup watercress chopped
1 tomato, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp. grated roquefort cheese
Bind all ingredients with French dressing and pile into avocado halves.
Were this served on an episode of Top Chef, it would probably be presented to the judges as a “deconstructed Cobb salad.” And while it would probably not win the challenge, Tom Collichio would probably admit it was tasty, if somewhat lacking in presentation.
Finally, because Brady had been rather sporting about the aspic, I let him pick the dessert, a recipe that reminded me why people don’t bake cakes from scratch anymore.
Maud S Devils Food Cake
2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
4 squares chocolate
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 cups flour
3/4 tsp. soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tbsp. vanilla
Put 1 cup sugar, 1 cup milk, chocolate and 2 of the eggs in top of double boiler and cook until thick and smooth like mush. Let cool. Cream butter, add 1 cup sugar, then 2 egg yolks, one at a time. Combine flour, soda and baking powder. Add mush and flour mixture alternately to butter and sugar mixture. Add vanilla. Beat remaining 2 egg whites until stiff but not dry, and fold in. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour batter in two 8″ square pans, covered on the bottom with greased waxed paper. Cook for 25 minutes or until straw comes out smooth. Set pans on wire rack for 5 minutes and then turn out.
This cake is named for one of Vanderbilt’s race horses – Maud S – because the cake is so good it disappears like a race horse! It can be frozen for a month. Ice with white icing.
-Mrs. A. MacDowell Smith
This cake is a little on the dense and dry side, and I’d probably use slightly less flour next time. Still, when you make a devil’s food layer cake for somebody, they tend to get pretty excited about it.
And there ends the story of our Nashville garden party meal, and of my first (and last) aspic. I need a little time to catch up this week, so I won’t be doing a new cookbook this week. However, Brady has agreed to do a little Junior League mixology in my stead, so polish your punch bowls, and cook up some simple syrup. One can never have too many recipes for pink cocktails.