Nothing motivates one to get in the kitchen more than a funeral. We all seem to harbor that primordial need to comfort with food. And there are fixed ideas – recipes that we keep in mind, or maybe on a card at the front of the recipe box for easy access. A hearty, comforting dish that we know how to make and how to make well that we can whip up the instant the call comes. Turkey Tetrazzini? Chicken Divan? I am sure it varies region to region. The popular green bean casserole that I understand is a standard part of the traditional Thanksgiving table in many parts of the country is almost universally known in this part of the world as “funeral beans.” But I don’t think I have every seen a table at a Southern visitation without Tomato Aspic. The visitation is the reception, frequently the day before, or immediately after the funeral. It’s a chance for everyone to talk to the bereaved, share memories of the deceased and really get their feed on. And, equally importantly, for the ladies in the equation to show off their skills in the kitchen. Friends and family of the recently departed are in the kitchen, bustling around in their funeral best, maybe an apron thrown on top, looking for serving pieces and saran wrap, deciding what goes on the table and what goes in the fridge for later,
Tomato aspic is made in a mold. And this can vary from person to person. My mother has a whole collection of aspic molds, from plain round to fancy. Party aspic is generally formed in a ring mold, so the center can be mounded up with shrimp, chicken salad, mayonnaise (homemade of course), artichoke hearts… You name it, someone has put in the center of an aspic. This party tomato aspic is always served on a silver tray, usually resting on a bed of lettuce leaves, with parsley around the edge of the tray. And it is the rare chance to use the silver aspic server that was a wedding gift, or inherited from a grandmother; a silver handle with a flat, round or slightly pointed surface, sometimes plain, sometimes intricately etched.
Though aspic always appears at funerals, it is not the only time it makes an appearance. For tomato aspic is the mainstay of the ladies luncheon. For this application, it is sometimes made in little individual molds (two sizes of these also appear in my mother’s collection), served on lettuce with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise on top. Though more often, a slice of aspic is the centerpiece of a three salad plate, the other two salads vary from chicken salad, tuna salad, fruit salad – you get the picture.
I will be honest here, I am not a huge fan of tomato aspic. I am a polite Southern girl though, and always eat it when it is put in front of me. And I do feel that for full Southern lady credentials, you have to be able to make an aspic. The recipe below is the version I prefer, tailored to my own tastes, with a nice celery tang and plenty of tomato flavor and a minimum of the truly odd ingredients you sometimes see in old recipes. Members of my family are aspic eaters and they have always given this a thumbs up.
5 ¾ cups (46 ounces) tomato juice
3 packets unflavored gelatin
½ medium onion, chopped
½ cup chopped celery leaves
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon salt
Lightly brush a 5-cup ring mold or equivalent individual molds with flavorless vegetable oil. This is a vital step – cooking spray doesn’t work well.
Place 2 cups of the tomato juice in a small bowl and stir in the gelatin to dissolve. Set aside.
Pour the remaining tomato juice into a large saucepan, add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then simmer reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer for ten minutes.
Strain the juice into a bowl with a pouring spout. Press on the solids to release any juice then discard. Whisk in the reserved gelatin mixture until thoroughly combined. Carefully pour into the prepared ring mold, filling as full as possible.
Very carefully transfer the mold to the refrigerator. When the aspic has cooled, cover the mold with plastic wrap, then chill until firm, at least 8 hours or overnight.
Unmold the aspic onto an elegant tray, and surround with parsley.