Gelatin is a decidedly unmodern food, due to its artificial ingredients, odd texture, and lack of any real flavor or taste. Its contemporary uses are as an alcohol vessel, a hospital food, or a relic from mid-century cookbooks to be mocked. But two local writers found inspiration in the substance for their new online literary magazine, Everything in Aspic.
The quarterly publication, founded by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar and Stephen Lin, focuses primarily on poetry, but is open to other kinds of work. The first issue was released digitally in December and a reading, "Suspended in Gelatin," will take place at White Whale Bookstore on Fri., Jan. 17, featuring Rebecca Martin, Robin Clarke, Shannon Sankey, and Jeffrey “Boosie” Bolden.
Bodnar and Lin, both poets themselves, went through the University of Pittsburgh's undergrad writing program and decided to start their own publication to regularly engage with other writers' work (Lin was an editor at Three Rivers Review, Pitt's undergrad literary magazine.) Having both experienced submitting dozens, or hundreds, of their own pieces to other publications, they had an idea of how they wanted to work as editors.
Both agreed that when starting a new publication, it is imperative to have a good name. They did a lot of brainstorming and tried random word generators before accidentally stumbling on the final result. "We started talking about mid-century cooking, and I think I just said, ‘They used to put everything in aspic.’ And we thought it was a very pleasant phrase," says Bodnar. "You can retroactively justify the theme."
Everything in Aspic doesn't necessarily have a theme in terms of the writing chosen, but both Bodnar and Lin say they look for more experimental poetry that veers away from traditional rhyming structures, and into modern issues and pop culture. Under the "mission" section of Everything in Aspic’s website is a paragraph, written by Lin, about the qualities that make up gelatin, which are also sometimes the qualities that make up the current cultural atmosphere.
"More and more it is becoming plain that our current moment is neither crystalline nor amber, neither immutable nor impenetrable," the mission statement reads. "Today is something cast in a Jell-O mold, slapping wetly against yesterday and tomorrow. Tomorrow is a key-lime monstrosity we are unprepared to face. But the permeability of the gelatin is a reminder of what was and what may be again."
Aspics are a form of gelatin food that can be savory or sweet, and are often shaped by a ring mold. Its innards can include meat, fruit, or other foods suspended in the jelly. They were a common sight in cookbooks from the 1950s-70s, and have found a resurgence online with the popularity of social media accounts that pay homage to disgusting recipes from old-timey cookbooks. There are over a dozen Facebook groups dedicated to the strangeness of aspics, including one called “Show Me Your Aspics” and another called “Aspics with threatening auras.” Make no mistake: Both groups contain extremely threatening gelatin images.
"I thought that gelatin is this very interesting metaphor for how we are able to make something visible but also distort it," says Lin, "and what it means to not really see clearly the things that we're reflecting on." The Everything in Aspic website features an image of a house, a fox, and a rose, all submerged within a jiggly substance.
Literary magazines, especially those focused on poetry, tend to be more serious. They are often run by serious writers who publish other serious writers’ writing about serious things. But the humor of Everything in Aspic is refreshing (unlike Jell-O itself). The first issue features poetry about bog people, metaphorical cassette tapes, and a short story excerpt about squirrels in the walls. The layout is decorated with old botanical illustrations of flowers and snails found on a public domain site (each issue will feature a different ecosystem; the next issue is desert-themed).
“I like towing the line between being dead serious and being slightly ridiculous,” says Bodnar.
The next issue is scheduled for release in March, and submissions are currently open.