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New Yorker Fiction Review #132: "Aspic" by Tatyana Tolstaya

Issue: Jan. 25, 2016

Story: "Aspic" by Tatyana Tolstaya

Rating: $

Review: There's not much to go on here. "Aspic" is a little less than one New Yorker page long and is more of a meditation or a remembrance than a story. The narrator describes the process of making aspic, a sort of Russian meat gelatin mold type of thing that that doesn't sound too appetizing. No wonder the aspic triggers such dark feelings in the narrator. Not only is aspic normally made just before New Year's eve, when the days are at their shortest and northern hemisphere winter is (or used to be) in full blast.

The making of the aspic is something that goes beyond mere food preparation. It is tied to years of deep deep family memories, not all of them pleasant, not all of them unpleasant, but so embedded in the narrator's soul that she doesn't know why she makes the aspic, but she knows she cannot not make it:

"It's a special kind of religion, making the aspic. It's a yearly sacrifice, though we don't know to whom or for what. And what would happen if you didn't make it is also a question mark."

The process of making aspic contains some interesting symbolism. Apparently you have to boil the living crap out of a bunch of pig parts (hooves, lips, nostrils), then throw away the broth and boil everything again until it's some kind of gelatinous thing I don't really understand. But, in some way, it's the same process that's happening to the narrator's soul over years and years and years, and sort of what happens to us all. And in the end, just like with the aspic, you are left with something: a life. It may not be pretty, it may not be perfect, but it's something.

Pizzelles. Much more tasty
than aspic.
This story resonated with me because I recently started making pizzelles, a simple type of Italian waffle cookie typically made around Christmas. The pizzelle is so closely tied into my memories of the holidays that the smell of a hot pizzelle iron conjures up a mix of memories and emotions so strong and so arresting it almost feels like time stops for a moment. The difference is, I have absolutely no sad or unpleasant memories of making pizzelles.

Overall, "Aspic" is an interesting meditation on family, memory, and ritual, and how those things stay with us and affect our present and our emotions...but not much more than that.


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