It has my recent good fortune on a couple of occasions to attend “Lenten Lunch” – a noontime meal at a church, provided by parishioners on weekdays during the season of Lent.
The menu is typical Southern comfort food with entrees such as meatloaf, pork chops and shrimp creole, with sides of black-eyed peas, squash casserole and fried okra, among other vegetables.
Although there are luscious pieces of pie that call my name, I pass by them because I just can’t – although believe me, I want to.
Food served in this setting hearkens back to the church potlucks I grew up with. Folks prepared foods much like the aforementioned and the offerings were set out in an aesthetically pleasing fashion on long tables.
In addition to the assorted entrees, sides and desserts, there were also salads (as there are at the church I just mentioned), which would always include the congealed kind.
I have found not all younger folks to be familiar with the congealed salad, which was a staple of my upbringing, whether it was at the church potluck or at home. The best way I know to describe it is a concoction that is solid from a gelatin source (what we typically call “Jell-o,” even though it’s a name brand). It can include all kinds of ingredients, most commonly fruit or nuts, or a combination thereof, and sometimes a creamy substance such as sour cream or cream cheese.
It is often made in flat casserole dish, to be cut in squares, but a creative cook might make it in a type of mold, which gives it an attractive look on a table.
There is a funny story about that. When my wife and I had been married only a few months, she was preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner, a matter about which I have previously written in this space. She asked me in advance what some of my family’s favorite traditional dishes were and I told her about a strawberry-banana congealed salad. She obtained the recipe from my mother. A couple of days before Thanksgiving, she proceeded to make it – in a bundt pan.
As any good new husband would do, I questioned her on that and explained to her that my mother had always made it in a casserole dish.
Not surprisingly, that was a brief conversation in which I was invited by my wife to either make the dish myself or allow her to go forward as planned. I chose the second option and I must say it turned out beautifully.
Besides that one, there are countless others, and one of the simpler ones my mother often made included only Jell-o and a can of fruit cocktail. Bing cherry salad is another good one.
There is one, however, that I simply cannot abide, which was a standard at every church potluck and is featured at the aforementioned church. It’s called tomato aspic. I looked up the recipe and it calls for four cups of tomato juice.
Therein lies the problem for me, in that I am not a fan of tomato juice. (Although I’m really not big on the very name aspic, for that matter, which seems to have a rather harsh sound).
To be honest, I don’t know anyone who likes tomato aspic. I think it’s kind of like the canned cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner. It is expected to be there and it is, but does anyone really eat it?
It’s like that with tomato aspic and church potlucks and any meals served at churches, including those that take place after a funeral. If you were brought up in the South, you have likely been to one of these.
In the hilarious book, “Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral,” the authors (two Southern ladies) ask the pointed question, “Can you be buried without tomato aspic?” and go on to answer that neither of them has ever “been to a funeral where homemade aspic wasn’t served.”
I’ve left instructions to have it at my post-funeral meal and since I won’t be there, that’s all the better.
Before leaving this topic, I would also like to address the broader matter of side salads in general.
As I was growing up, a side salad was often part of the evening meal. This might have been of the congealed variety as I have just described or, in some cases, maybe a simple green salad. But often it was pieces of fruit that my mother had taken from a can, perhaps a couple of pineapple slices. They were served on a separate, small plate, with one slice slightly overlapping the other, atop a lettuce leaf, with shredded cheese on top, and maybe a dollop of mayonnaise, finished with paprika sprinkled on top of that.
This could also be done with pear halves, with a small bit of cream cheese inserted in the indentation, and cheese and paprika as with the pineapple slices. I’m sure there were other variations, but these are the ones that come to mind.
Just like a congealed salad, it was a lovely and tasty accompaniment to a meal, the vision of which is etched in my mind.
Thankfully, at my house, it was never tomato aspic.
Because, to this day, I just can’t.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, husband of one, father of three and father-in-law of two. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.