(by Lynette Louise)
It was another special day for food and revulsion. A love/hate affair with family and friends. It may have been Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. Our table was the same for all of these. A big brown turkey overstuffed with bread and onion. Sliced ham, brown gravy, mashed potatoes, freshly baked sweet buns, corn, cranberry sauce, green beans, and buttery peas. Added to all the hot dishes we could count on was a cinnamon apple jelly and… Tomato Aspic.
Tomato Aspic is disgusting. Not another single person in our 10,000-person town made it. And certainly no one wanted to eat it. But it was Mom’s signature dish, her special difference, topped with raw shrimp. It jiggled in my hand as I carefully carried the molded tomato juice jelly to our overcrowded table. We always had company for these traditional meals. Mom liked to “put on the dog” for others, but the fear of something going wrong generally led to an outburst and a good slapping once the company left.
Our dining room was traditional right down to the French doors and linen tablecloths, but our kitchen had been redone in a garish style—purple and orange, with gold wallpaper and a huge moon-shaped orange ball over the kitchen table. Her motivation was a neighbor, my best friend’s mom, who was very hip and had decorated her kitchen in a hippie, beaded curtain, black-and-white style. Mom was competing but also trying to appear accepting by hiring the local gay decorator.
The crazy colors added to the stomach lurching stirred up by the smell of Tomato Aspic. I breathed a sigh of relief as I arrived at the dining room table. It was noisy with conversation and put the stress of the kitchen at my back. We sat, said grace, and started to pass the food. My eyes were on the Aspic. It began to circle the table. Barely touched. Slightly misshapen in its circular mold. Bits of lettuce bedded the shrimp, and a few tendrils fell on my sister’s plate. She passed it to my brother who made a face, causing my dad to cuff the back of his head. He handed it to me.
I had promised myself that this year I would make my mother happy. This year she would see me eat it willingly. This year I would not embarrass her. It was a heavy burden of promise. My mother was a big woman in every way. She was big in stature, rotundity, laughter, and meanness. She liked to hit and call you names, and she hid that aspect of her mothering rather ineffectively. She could hurt you and hug you and laugh at your stupidity all in one breath. She had little saliva strings from one lip to another. She was a grade-school teacher and looked like Queen Elizabeth, with football-helmet-shaped curly brown hair, no makeup except lipstick while at work. She wore a food-stained housecoat at home, except when in the company of neighbors, when she was likely in petal-pushers and flip-flops. She was very sensitive and it was important to keep her happy.
I held the Aspic in my hands. Mom was glaring at me. I cradled the small wooden bowl I had prepared in my lap. I winked at my sister and took a healthy slice, then passed the Aspic to the next person. Mom continued to glare. I took a deep breath and continued with my plan. I smiled at her. Mixed a little potato into my tomato and plopped the revolting slime into my mouth. I squished it into the side of my cheek to keep my tongue from tasting it, and (as planned) my sister dropped a platter causing noise but no mess.
Mom looked to see if anyone needed hitting, and I slid all the Aspic and shrimp into the bowl on my lap. I spit the Aspic into my napkin as I got up and, putting my back to the group, said, “There is too much on the platter. I will get another.” After disposing of the evidence, I returned with an extra plate that my mother shooed away. I was covered in sweat.
My mom started chatting and laughing and passing food. I slid my sister’s Aspic onto the unnecessary plate and went back to the kitchen. Over the course of the meal, my sister and I disposed of the Aspic that nobody ate.
Mom was happy that night. Less stressed by the weight of tradition and company than usual. Proud that people ate her food, complimented her dishes, enjoyed the baked desserts, and cleaned up the Aspic. My sister and I were proud, we felt like super spies. We enjoyed the smile of satisfaction on our mother’s face.
We learned a lesson that day. Lying has consequences. And the consequence is Aspic. Which we ate at every event that Mom hosted.
Mom passed away just before Covid-19 became an international scourge. In fact, we couldn't have a funeral because travel was cancelled between Canada and the United States. Fortunately she avoided loneliness because she was suffering from dementia, and in her delusion became the mother I always wished I had. The night she died, my brother broke the grief with a joke: "Well, at least there won't be any more Tomato Aspic."
Dr. Lynette Louise ("The Brain Broad") is an international brain change and behavior expert who lives in California. She can be found at www.lynettelouise.com, www.brainbody.net, Facebook, and Twitter. She is the mother of Tsara Shelton, who wrote "Tomato Aspic, No More" for Eat, Darling, Eat.
The Dreaded Tomato Aspic
(adapted from Southern Living)
2 T. unflavored gelatin
1/4 c. cold water
1/4 c. boiling water
4 c. tomato juice
1 T. onion, minced
1 t. sugar
1 t. salt
1 t. seasoned salt
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 t. celery seeds
2 bay leaves
2 whole cloves
2 T. fresh lemon juice
optional: cooked shrimp
In a bowl, sprinkle gelatin over cold water, and let stand 5 minutes.
Whisk in boiling water until gelatin is dissolved.
In a large saucepan, combine tomato juice, onion, sugar, salt, seasoned sat, Worcestershire sauce, celery seeds, bay leaves, and cloves.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.
Pour through a wire-mesh strainer into a bowl.
Stir in lemon juice and gelatin.
Pour into a 10-inch ring mold coated with cooking spray.
Refrigerate for 6 hours or until set.
Optional: Fill the center with shrimp when serving.