Tomato Aspic

A group of friends and I were sitting around sharing Thanksgiving war stories. Everybody had some kind of tale to tell from the sisters who fought, or the drinking that ruined it all, or the gathering of the clan.

When I was a kid, we always seemed to host the big holidays at our house. The relatives came. The men consumed hard liquor in cut glass tumblers and discussed politics and money. The women had their own whiskey in smaller glasses but sipped very slowly as they got dinner on the table. Me and my cousins got into feverish games of tag, football or hide and seek that usually resulted in one of the younger ones breaking into sobs because it wasn’t fair. (Of course it wasn’t fair. That was the point of being the oldest – we didn’t have to be fair because we were the rulers of all games.) Adults would scold and we would sulkily start a different game that also involved hysterical running around until at last dinner was called. We would sit at the laden table, extended and crowded to the max with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

My aunts and mom served up platters and bowls of turkey, cranberry, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, vegetables, cole slaw, mashed turnip…and always my Aunt Lil’s tomato aspic.

For those who have never tasted aspic, it’s a kind of jelly made from tomato juice, flavored with lemon and celery. There might have been some kind of mayonnaise sauce in the jelly ring, but in my child eyes it was pretty to look at and ghastly on the tongue; it even beat out mashed turnip on the disgusting scale.

But our preferences were insignificant in the face of good manners and the family feast. We had to have a serving of aspic and we had to eat at least a mouthful. And OMG it was as awful as we remembered – every year. I don’t think anybody liked it actually, but Aunt Lil made it and so we all ate it. Everybody. Even my father whose wishes were paramount and who couldn’t abide tomato anything. Courtesy and ritual trumped all personal preference.

We would eat until we were practically ill. My mom and Aunts would exchange gossip and a few sibling rivalry barbs, do the dishes and as they left, my mom would insist Aunt Lil take home half the leftovers and all the aspic.

Today the players in the scene are dead or scattered across the continent. I keep in touch with my youngest cousin who lives in LA. Aunt Lil is in her mid-late nineties, blind and frail, the only aunt but one left in my family.

I haven’t seen or tasted tomato aspic in years, but I would give almost anything to have it set before me again.

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