Unbeknownst to many, jello was initially enjoyed as a savory fare and not as a dessert. These non-dessert jello options known as aspic, savory jello or vegetable jello originated from the old world sustainable approach to cooking: maximizing every part of the animal as much as possible. Although savory jello is no longer as popular as its sweet counterpart, the history of aspic underlines how the evolution of certain foods can take an interesting turn due to forces that are not even culinary.
Like many things, aspic began as a discovery. During the ancient times, Old World peasants had to use every portion of their hunt in order to maximize their food source. One of their techniques was to boil the bones of certain body parts in order to trim off the meat that sticks to the bones. After boiling the bones and the head until the meat falls off, they scrape off the flesh and serve them with vegetables. The remaining stock would serve as soup.
Eventually, they noticed that when the stock cools down the soup or consomme tends to coagulate; this is because of the high protein content. The solidified soup would become a tasty dish served cold, a great option when they would finally run out of meat. Since then, these savory gelatinous forms of their soup would become a staple in their diet.
Although savory jellos were mainly dishes consumed by peasants, the demand for these gelatinous creations would become apparent in aristocratic circles. Aspic, as a dish, would develop into a sophisticated fare especially as the aspic or the jello itself was hard to prepare. Aspic initially looked cloudy, and developing the process to make a clear jello would become a subject of interest in old haute cuisine.
French “King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings” Marie-Antoine Careme saw the potential of aspic as an aristocratic dish. He introduced many ways to prepare aspic, and he, in fact, created the chaud froid which are food prepared hot but served cold. The savory jello, under Careme’s supervision and creativity, were no longer just a block of flavored gelatin but it also evolved into a very flexible components. Careme started using aspic as a glaze or a chaud froid sauce which made any meat, poultry and fish dish moist and tasty. Because of its capability to make food more interesting and flavorful, savory jello became at some point a star in old haute French cuisine.
From a mere block of savory gelatin, the aspic would soon develop into a complete meal as chefs started to embed meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables into this sliceable block of jello goodness.
Outside France, savory jello would also become a food staple especially in the United States. Because savory jello can be prepared in terrines or aspic molds as sliceable or as a delicate glaze, aspic gave room to culinary creativity especially in the mid 20th century. Inedible aspics can be also made as a decoration that chefs like to use.
Making an aspic requires ingredients and processes for the protein or savory source (meat, poultry, fish or vegetables), the aspic or the savory jello itself, and the garnish. For instance, in making a Poached Salmon in Aspic, you need to prepare the salmon in a stock, turn the stock into its jello form, blanch and/or cook the vegetables, layer the salmon and the garnish in the jello, and then glaze the entire thing. The recipe may already seem like an arduous task, but it is a culinary adventure any true foodie or cook would love to jump into.
Aspic may no longer be as popular as it used to, especially with the emergence of the beloved jello. Jello these days can be easily made, and many people grew up eating jello as a regular dessert. Aspics, however, would become a distant culinary exercise, especially that preparing this savory dish is no easy task. Savory jello recipes do not only require the skills to perfectly combine flavor and consistency but it also demands skills and patience, especially as a perfect loaf of savory jello takes several hours to make.
This brings to the discussion on how gelatin consumption has changed over the years. The demand for gelatin or jello can be attributed to its comforting consistency and the flexibility of the component that can be subject to every flavor imaginable. Jello remains to be a favorite dessert in cafeterias, and children these days are more familiar with jello as a dessert and not as a savory treat.
The sad decline of the aspic can be attributed to the economic factors required in order to make a perfect serving. It takes too much energy, time, and ingredients to make a good savory jello. Aspics require a certain culinary touch that it has now become a specialty of a handful. However, as the world continues to savor the sweet, instant delight of the regular jello, there remains the small population that still upholds the tradition and the value of these savory dishes.