From Food To Fine Art: The Revival of Gelatin

Grandma might have made it back in the day, but now online communities are reviving jello and aspic dishes with weird and creative results.

By Siobhan Ball

When’s the last time you saw jello served at a party?  (Art:    Dakota Cates   )

When’s the last time you saw jello served at a party? (Art: Dakota Cates)

When it comes to food, aspic is not a very inviting word. It sounds vaguely medicinal and off-puttingly Victorian, and it doesn’t get any better when you find out what it actually is: meat and vegetables set into a savory solid gel made from bone broth.

Jello, another popular gelatin creation, doesn’t fare much better. It’s just as likely to elicit images of a hospital or a children’s birthday party as it is to remind one of those weird half-sweet, half-savory monstrosities from mid-century cocktail parties.

While in some cuisines gelatin creations never went out of vogue — they’re an essential part of quinceañeras in some regions, and meat aspics remain popular in Germany — it can be hard to imagine them regaining the universal appeal they once held. And yet that’s what’s happening in a number of online communities. Pinterest is covered in how-to guides for making Mexican milk jello — artsy gelatin sculptures that are cut so perfectly they look more like Caithness paperweights than something you can eat.

On the savory side of things, aspics are being served in upscale places like the Thermae Spa in Bath, England and London’s Chelsea Riverside Brasserie. Both establishments play it relatively safe using tomato rather than meat for flavor and treating it as a garnish rather than a complete dish. For anything more adventurous, you need to turn to the internet where recipes abound and DIY enthusiasts are more than willing to be your guide.

On the Facebook group Show Me Your Aspics, retro food enthusiasts share vintage photographs and gelatin recipes, but a fair amount of the 22,000 members also try preparing and eating their gelatin art themselves. Some of them are familiar jellos we grew up eating — simple fruit flavors cast in traditional ring, fish, or rabbit molds.

Others try to recreate alarming retro recipes of yore — like Perfection Salad, which includes vegetables set in a lemon jello ring — with greater and lesser degrees of seriousness, always posting their failures for the group to laugh over.

Then there are those who take their gelatin art to the next level, incorporating complicated flavor profiles, unorthodox ingredients like roses or chickpeas, and decorative techniques that you wouldn’t have seen in the Middle Ages when aspic dishes first went into vogue.

Would you willingly eat this?

Would you willingly eat this?

Mary, a gelatin artist in Canada, mostly sticks to the traditional molds, though she also has a security camera case she uses to make large glistening domes. What sets her work apart is her unusual flavor combinations, which often include at least four different ingredients, like brandy extract and flattened diet peach soda.

While fruit is usually the main ingredient embedded in sweet gelatin — followed closely by marshmallows and maybe sponge cake if you’re making an English trifle — Mary includes much more interesting items, such as gummy candies and on one occasion an entire rose. She also often uses non-toxic, safe-to-eat mica eyeshadows to give her creations a sparkle. Her gelatin art, she said, includes “things that I like, all in one dish.”

People are often appalled by Mary’s flavor combinations and use of glitter, and her gelatins are frequently cross-posted on various Reddit forums dedicated to mocking bad food. At this point, Mary told OK Whatever she’s “come to enjoy the savage ridicule” because “it’s too hilarious to hurt.” She even posts her creations to a Facebook group called Awful Recipes.

One of hers that drew particular ire was a savory aspic she made using chickpeas, onions, and mint. She described it as “basically a salad” with a “nicely chewy” texture, and though she made it on a dare, she says she’s planning on making more of them.

Making jello has also become a kind of therapy for her. Though Mary was initially drawn to gelatin for its texture — she described it as “so beautiful” — preparing it provided an “emotional release” during a challenging time in her life when she was caring for her ill partner.

Gelatin is also seen as an artform by some. Innovators in their field, these people use scalpels and syringes to create three-dimensional sculptures meant to mirror everyday objects. Flowers are the most common designs, but spiders, eyeballs, and even parrots have all been lovingly crafted using these techniques.

Brenda and Leo are a couple who came to the wonderful world of aspics after joining a neurogastronomy competition hosted by their workplace.

“I like creative cooking. I have a hobby of baking structural cakes and desserts, but had never heard of neurogastronomy before,” Brenda said. “While looking through the world of established neurogastronomy, we noticed that gelatin was used often to create dazzling, visual displays.”

Instead of opting for fairly simple ingredients, Brenda and Leo got adventurous with their flavor profiles. While it’s standard to make the base of a gelatin creation clear with either a plain or delicate citrus flavor, Brenda and Leo went mixed in rum, maple, and orange water as bases.

Cost was also a factor in helping them decide on making gelatin for the competition.“The price was less than many food-art hobbies, and I had some of the supplies already available (like food coloring and gelatin),” Brenda said, estimating that it cost roughly $25 to get started, including all the specialized tools.

Since then, they’ve ventured into the more intimidating world of aspics, creating soup and salad oddities that resemble modernist lunch specials. To make soup aspics, gelatin — or the seaweed substance agar for vegetarians — is added to the broth to make it set, while the vegetables and spices are arranged in such a way that “when you unmold the aspic, it'll have a nice pattern,” Brenda said.

Salad aspics are something else entirely.  All the traditional vegetables of a salad are carefully arranged inside a whole eggshell and then gelatin is poured around them. Once it’s cooled and the shell is cracked away, everything remains in place.

Compared to the other dishes they’ve made which were “all easy to do and get into,” the savory egg aspic salad was the trickiest yet. But Brenda and Leo aren’t ready to give up on it and claim they’ll attempt to make it again, once it’s been “troubleshooted for flavor and consistency.”

“With practice,” Brenda said, “I imagine anything would be possible.”

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