Tomato Aspic

I’m on a trek through classic, Southern recipe land and a “must stop” on this culinary journey is aspic-ville… tomato aspic to be exact. While aspic is almost a Southern culinary genre unto itself, tomato aspic seems to be the most prevalent and memorable type. With a history pre-dating the Middle Ages, aspics are reminiscent of menus befitting Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth or World Without End. They have legend and lore, princely and peasant pedigrees alike, and interesting stories behind their origins. And we all know how Southerners love stories! 

Stemming from the Greek word aspis meaning “shield,” these jellied dishes protect their inner salads from the elements, preserving the conglomeration of spices and flavors within their gelatin glaze. Made with tomato juice, they can be enjoyed year round – not only when tomatoes are at their peak. Many fruits, vegetables, and savory elements can be melded into aspic , but, again, it is the tomato version that’s nearer and dearer to most Southern hearts and stomachs. Another perk is the molds that house them; the lovely rings and shapes are fun to collect and can be found in antique malls, estate sales and grandmother’s kitchen! If you’ve never sampled it, tomato aspic is somewhat like eating a Bloody Mary, without the spike of alcohol. 

From the Victorian era into the time of the Baby Boomers, pressed, congealed, and molded salads were a staple on the American culinary scene. No dinner on the grounds, supper at grandmother’s, dinner party or ladies luncheon would be complete without tomato aspic and its various and a sundry cohorts. Sadly, fast- paced life, microwaves, and quick fix meals eventually replaced the gentility of dishes such as aspics in some locales. 

Fortunately, I grew up in Hawkinsville and Kathleen, Georgia- Southern towns only a few country miles apart. Here tomato aspic is still served on pretty dinnerware with silver and the two wonderful accoutrements– garlic and herb mayonnaise and cheese straws.

I could write volumes on cheese straws. MANY Southern towns, villages, and hamlets are blessed with their own “cheese straw lady” (along with their “caramel cake lady” but that’s another post) who provides her municipality with cheese straws for showers, luncheons, parties, funerals, holidays, and weddings. Cheese straws are the perfect pairing for tomato aspic. Every cheese straw lady I have ever had the honor of meeting guards her recipe with vigor and zeal, so I always try to keep a batch on hand by over-ordering for parties and storing the leftovers in the freezer… they freeze beautifully.

 “This is in the freezes beautifully section of my cookbook, and I wanted to bring something that freezes beautifully.” Annelle, Steel Magnolias.

Southerners living away from their roots and food sources don’t like to forego these pleasures. The daughter of the best tomato aspic maker in Hawkinsville has a deep freeze in Virginia full of Southern delicacies. I’ve told her that if her freezer’s cache was ever lost, it would be akin to the burning of Atlanta… Southerners and their deep freezers are stories for another time!

On this culinary journey, I have asked folks about some of their favorite Southern classics and tomato aspic is always at the top of the list – especially for my grandparent’s generation. They light up when a young person such as yours truly queries about aspics and the like. I too light up, for I’m carrying the torch of the Greatest Generation when I share recipes like tomato aspic and strawberry Charlotte Russe. A Time to Congeal might just be the next book! From this Farmer’s kitchen (and one of the finest kitchens in Hawkinsville that shared her recipe), I present to you tomato aspic! Enjoy!

Tomato Aspic
  • 2 Tablespoons of unflavored gelatin… And don’t be afraid of using gelatin – it gives a twist to a salad, a pump to a dessert, and shape to a cream pie.
  • ½ cup of cold water
  • 2 ½ cups of tomato juice
  • ¼ teaspoon of red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon of onion juice
  • ¾ cup diced celery
  • Cup of chopped green pimiento stuffed olives
Soften gelatin in water. Heat 1 cup of tomato juice, pour over gelatin, and stir until dissolved. Add remaining tomato juice, pepper, salt and Worcestershire. Chill until mixture begins to thicken and stir in rest of the ingredients. Pour into small oiled molds and chill until set. Serve with herbed mayonnaise. Serves 10-12.

NOTE: This may also be molded in a 2-quart ring mold.

Herb Mayonnaise
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/4 " salt
1/4 " paprika
1/4 " cup parsley, minced
1 tbsp grated onion
1 tbsp minced chives
1/8 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 garlic clove minced
1 tbsp. capers
1/2 cup sour cream

Mix all ingredients well. Chill overnight. Can also be used for sandwiches.