Lost Art of Aspic

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Greensboro brewery aspires to revive these gelatinous culinary creations in the world’s first aspic cooking competition

Story by Andrea Gable | Photography by Brandy Angel

I think Nathan McGarity secretly likes to see the look of polite disgust on people’s faces when they learn what aspic is. Once the co-owner of Oconee Brewing Co. explains this culinary fad that has waned in and out of consciousness for generations, there’s a recollection, usually of old recipes in church cookbooks or faded Jell-O advertisements that transports the memory back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s when cooks were suspending anything and everything in a gelatinous mold.

Usually the next look that flashes across the face is quizzical, begging the question, “Why would you want to have an aspic competition at the brewery?”

Then, you remember that you’re talking a person who had the idea of sending the first beer into space with a high-altitude weather balloon, something that he helped make happen in 2017. 

“We thought this would be fun and cheeky enough to fit the brewery and we’ve never been afraid to try something,” says McGarity.

After all, there are competitive barbecue circuits across the country and chili cookoffs in nearly every small town in America. No one, he explains without irony, has ever done an official aspic competition.

Somehow, this outdated convention of sealing meats in naturally congealed jelly or fruits and vegetables in commercial gelatin powder has stuck around. It’s even become an art form in many circles. 

Perhaps it’s the mild repulsion of the gelatinous art that accounts for its lingering appeal. Like a dog that’s so ugly it’s cute, or, as McGarity explains, a bad joke that’s been told so often it’s funny again.

He wants to let everyone in on that joke, making Greensboro the home of the world’s first aspic competition on Aug. 22, and maybe even igniting a revival of the lost art of aspic.

“We’d love to see it take off,” he says.

Take off like a beer in space.

History of Aspic

Aspic has a surprisingly long history and has been a culinary tradition across the globe for centuries. Some of the earliest recipes date back to the Middle Ages and were detailed in “Le Viandier,” a manuscript created in the 1300s. It was a dish born of necessity in that era. In a world before refrigeration, the jelly that set up around parts of meat after it was boiled served as a preservative, keeping bacteria from reaching the meat inside. In fact, it’s believed to be the explanation for the term aspic as the Greek word for “shield” is “aspis.”

The early 1800s ushered in the golden age of aspics as French chef Marie-Antoine Careme brought attention to the craft through his almost architectural preparation of a variety of molds and components. According to the Michelin Guide, these elaborate show pieces were part of the royal cuisine in the court of Napoleon. Soon, aspics were a part of classical French cookery. In his book “All Manners of Food,” Stephen Mennell writes of one grand dinner in France with 52 various dishes, all set in aspic.

For Americans, aspics caught the public’s imagination during the industrial revolution. Mass animal processing plants decided to capitalize on the gelatin byproduct that was previously just going to waste. With healthy advertising and marketing, processors convinced the public that almost anything could be set in jelly.

By the 1950s and 60s, meat aspics were not uncommon on the kitchen table. Then came the production of commercial gelatin powders like Jell-O, and the madness began. Home cooks and marketing companies got creative with recipes and encouraged things like jellied hotdogs or canned tuna in lime Jell-O. Instead of the normal dishes of mostly fruit, chicken, or sliced meats, there were vegetable floating in lemon gelatin and canned fruits with celery suspended in ginger-ale flavored jelly.

Classic techniques of aspic fell away in favor of quicker culinary trends and Jell-O salads began to replace the definition of aspic in our collective consciousness. By the 1970s, aspics were beginning to be shunned as vintage creations of a bygone era – a food fad trapped in mid-century Americana.

Some tried-and-true aspics have survived, like tomato aspics that sometimes top salads at high-end restaurants or serve as appetizers at elegant functions, but for the most part, aspics have been relegated back to a bad joke.

“Though it’s still with us in spirit, aspic has pretty much passed from our collective menu, victim of excessive commercial exploitation and easy visual jokes,” writes Tim Hayward in a 2010 article in The Guardian. “Yet it seems like it might be fun and I’d love to give it a go.”

Revival of Aspic

The culinary world is starting to chuckle once more at the bad joke that has become aspic. Some are captivated by the horror of bad vintage recipe and are curious enough to try them out. But others see aspics as an elaborate art form, much like in the days of the legendary Chef Careme in France.

Vehement defenders of aspics have from around the world have connected over Facebook to show off their culinary creations. One such post in the Show Me Your Apics group garnered thousands of likes. It was a pink Champagne and shell stock cream reduction holding a lobster tail, set in a lobster-shaped mold. The creations range from bizarre to beautiful, like a translucent one filled with edible flowers and dotted with molded koi fish and swans.

To these creators of aspic, the process of assembling is just as satisfying than its taste. Oftentimes the final piece is more “art” than “edible.”

It’s these aficionados and adventurous cooks who McGarity would like to draw in for the world’s first aspic competition on Aug. 22 at Oconee Brewing Co. in Greensboro. For them, the brewery can give a creative platform to the art that no Facebook page could.

“I’ve always felt there was a culinary connection with the brewery, so hosting a food event is a natural fit,” says McGarity. “Also the brewery is so well tied with community that I felt it would be fun for everyone to have a competition and try it to see if it takes off.”

A limited number of culinary teams or individuals will create an aspic based on the criteria of the competition. Their finished pieces will be displayed at the brewery on Aug. 22 and patrons will vote for their favorites in various categories. Competitors will receive a T-shirt and a case of beer. The winner will receive free beer for a year at Oconee Brewing Co.

“We’d like to draw competitors from around the community,” says McGarity. “I think it would be fun for a father/son team to throw in, or local restauranteurs, or even a celebrity chef. I could see this event growing out of the brewery and becoming a much larger thing.”

While McGarity is naturally programmed to have the highest of aspirations for all his endeavors – to shoot for the moon, if you will – his main hope for this inaugural event is to see people come out to the brewery and enjoy an afternoon of cheeky fun. But he can’t help but ask, “Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community that is known for a worldwide competition?”

That’s why I don’t doubt it will succeed. If I did, the joke’s on me.

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