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In 1905 Knox Gelatin sponsored a contest for recipes using their product. A recipe for something called Perfection Salad won third prize, a $100 sewing machine, for Mrs. John E. Cook of New Castle, Pennsylvania. One wonders what the first and second place winners might have been.


Perfection Salad

• 1 envelope Knox Sparkling Gelatine.
• 1/2 cup cold water.
• 1/2 cup mild vinegar.
• 1 pint boiling water
• 1 teaspoonful salt
• 1 cup finely shredded cabbage.
• Juice of one lemon.
• 1/2 cup sugar.
• 2 cups celery cut in small pieces.
• 1/4 can sweet red peppers, finely cut.

Soak the gelatine in cold water five minutes; add vinegar, lemon juice, boiling water, sugar and salt. Strain, and when beginning to set add remaining ingredients. Turn into a mold and chill. Serve on lettuce or endive leaves with mayonnaise dressing, or cut in dice and serve in cases made of red or green peppers, or the mixture may be shaped in molds lined with pimentos. A delicious accompaniment to cold sliced chicken or veal.

Great. A vinegar flavored congealed vegetable thing. It’s my opinion that Knox has a lot to answer for in the ensuing onslaught of Godawful gelatin salads that followed for the rest of the century.

James Beard did not care much for what he referred to as “congealed salads.”   But flavorful aspics made from meat stock or vegetables can be a lovely reminder of ladies’ luncheons from the 20s and 30s, with all the retro-ness that might imply (molded salads made with buttermilk, creamy cheeses, wines, meats, and even fish are another largely forgotten culinary remnant of those days – too bad, because they’re easy to make and delicious). My mother and grandmother made aspics, but you don’t see them on the menu much any more. I understand they’re a staple dish in the American South. Never have gotten any further south than Joplin, Missouri (and only stopping for lunch, about which I remember nothing), I couldn’t say for sure.

Aspic, then, is a liquid that has been congealed with gelatin, either naturally occurring (as in beef or chicken stock) or added (as in unflavored gelatin). Clear aspics, such as chicken, are sometimes used in recherche dishes such as eggs coated with aspic, or as an unusual cold chicken “soup.”

But here we are talking about tomato aspic. This is a very light salad on its own, though it’s often paired with another contrasting cold dish such as a creamy shrimp salad or  a crunchy slaw. It makes a wonderful hot-weather lunch with charcuterie and bread, or a simple dinner alongside casual dishes like fried chicken and green beans.

I’ve livened this aspic up with some sherry (which my grandmother would never have used, temperance adherent that she was) and typical Bloody Mary seasonings. It’s amusing to use one of those Turk’s-head or similar copper molds that you see in thrift stores or yard sales, but any bowl will work.

This is adapted from John Phillip Carroll’s California The Beautiful Cookbook, which is from a series of —- The Beautiful cookbooks. They look like coffee table books, and they are, but they are also fine cookbooks.

Do not spend big bucks on Knox Gelatin, which is astronomically priced in those little envelopes with the cow’s head. Go to a health food store or other supermarket that sells bulk products, and buy gelatin from a bin. MUCH cheaper.


  • 8 cups tomato juice or V-8 juice or Clamato or some variation thereof
  • 4 generous tablespoons unflavored gelatin
  • 1/2 cup sherry, vermouth, or white wine
  • good shot Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
  • 1-2 teaspoons horseradish
  • 1-2 teaspoons minced or pureed garlic
  • hot sauce to taste (use something with flavor like Frank’s or Cholula or Tapatio – Tabasco is just vinegary heat)
  • freshly ground pepper
  • sprinkle of celery salt
  • juice of one lime or lemon
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil or Italian seasoning

Pour the sherry into a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over it, and let sit for a few minutes to dissolve.

Combine the other ingredients in a pan and heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until almost-but-not-quite boiling, then remove from heat.

Stir the sherry & gelatin to make sure it’s dissolved, then pour into the tomato juice and stir thoroughly.

Pour into a mold or  bowl and put in the refrigerator until set. This usually takes about 12 hours.

To unmold: wring a cloth in hot water, then rub the outside of the bowl with hot cloth. Put a plate over the open mold. Using one hand on the bottom of the mold and one hand on the bottom of the plate, flip mold over. If the mold lands a bit off-center, push it gently toward center of plate, or say the hell with it and stick some greenery around it and tell everyone that’s how it’s supposed to look.

Garnish with lemon or lime slices and some sliced cucumber. This is usually served with mayonnaise on the side. If you make it in a ring mold, you can put another salad in the center of the ring.

If the aspic should not set up: you can melt the aspic again and again in a saucepan, dissolving and adding more gelatin as needed. Aspics will get firmer the longer they are refrigerated.

Variations: you can let the aspic get about halfway gelled, then stir in cubes of cream cheese, shrimp, olives, pickled green beans, chopped green onions,  or whatever else you think might be tasty. Or you can place shelled hard-boiled eggs in a ring mold and pour the tomato juice over them; slice and serve as a luncheon salad.

Use vodka or gin in place of sherry.

Stir in whipped cream cheese, cottage cheese, or sour cream when about half set.

Use half beef broth and half tomato juice.

Substitute salsa for part of the tomato juice.


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