The Tomato Aspic Incident

In spite of her inattention to many other parts of our lives, my rule-loving mother was a staunch practitioner of the eat-every-bite-on-your-plate school, which was complicated by her inept cooking and some child-unfriendly food selections. Her view was that if she liked something, her children had damned well better eat every bite of it.

Typical dinners included La Choi Chop Suey (if you’ve never been subjected to this canned mockery of Chinese food, consider yourself very fortunate) and Sloppy Joes (her three-ingredient version: undrained ground beef mixed with ketchup and brown sugar) and her three-season Saturday night special for the kids: a casserole dish of canned store-brand pork’n’beans topped with a single thin fried pork chop for the four children to share. Every single time she boiled potatoes, she boiled them dry, so we were pretty used to the burnt bouquet of her mashed potatoes. Since she did not believe in draining anything or purchasing lean meat, beef dishes were a pretty greasy and crumbly affair. I cannot bear to recall her meatloaf.

We were also expected to quietly eat what we unanimously agreed were our two least-favorite foods: boiled rutabaga and, on the most dreaded occasions, tomato aspic. Don’t know what tomato aspic is? Count your blessings. At its heart is it tomato juice in an unnatural union with unflavored gelatin and crab. Mother made it with watered-down tomato soup instead of juice and added undrained tuna in lieu of crabmeat, producing a taste and texture the memory of which makes me shudder even decades later. If there is a devil, he invented this gelatinous abomination as part of his scheme to erode family harmony, and then he put the recipe in the hands of the material world’s worst cooks, a category that I believe includes my mother.

I don’t know why my mother, who loves to eat, didn’t notice how awful her cooking was or try to improve it, but she knew to withhold certain especially sketchy concoctions until my father was out of town on business. One such night was when I was eight, and the menu featured the dreaded tomato aspic as main course.

After dinner, as Anne and I cleared the table, my six-year-old brother Jim went to empty the kitchen trash. There, with the fervor of a junior detective, he discovered a napkin full of surreptitiously discarded tomato aspic and, indignant that one of his siblings had evaded the horror he had just choked down, he triumphantly alerted my mother.

This discovery catapulted my mother into apoplexy. She was so insanely furious, so hysterically enraged, that we were all terrified. Jim, the only one who escaped suspicion, soon regretted telling her about this crime against chilled molded salads and mothers with unbreakable rules. The irrational shrieking, the disproportionate threatening, the bitter wrath ensured that the guilty party, who I admit was, well, me, was too afraid to come clean.

After she stormed to her room to lie down, screaming out a livid ultimatum for a confession, I admitted to my siblings what I had done. The four of us worked out a plan – the only way we thought this could end without the beating of a lifetime (she was an enthusiastic all-occasion spanker). With his too-youthful consent, we agreed that we would tell Mother that the youngest, four-year-old Dan, was the guilty party. She would go light on him since he was the baby and she typically exempted him from her sternest rules. He did get spanked, but she was much calmer once she believed that the older kids were not defying her. I still feel guilty about this. I mean about hurling Dan under the bus to protect myself, not about throwing out the goddamn tomato aspic.   

Maybe there was something already troubling my mother that day, and the aspic-disposal deception was a last straw. But as a mother myself, I just don’t understand her catatonic reaction. Even under the stress of my marriage ending when my sons were pre-schoolers and I had a demanding full-time job, I have never come near to freaking out at my children like that over anything.

Mother took the Aspic Incident so personally, as though some sacred boundary had been breached. The extent of her shock and fury make sense to me only as an expression of her conviction that her children would always fit into her rules about what we would be. This unbearable action must mean that the world had suddenly scrambled into terrifying incomprehensibility and, as it crumbled at its very roots, threatened her sense of self.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

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