There is one place in which all my interests converge, my love of history, my love of writing, my love of tradition: Food. I recently read Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, which I enjoyed immensely, although it did have me running to the kitchen, starving, on more than one occasion. I love how food represents different cultures and different times.
Every time I mention that my learning to cook was simply a method of survival, my husband accuses of me of bemoaning my poor, difficult childhood. Let me first state that I am aware that there was nothing poor nor difficult about my childhood. But it is a fact that if I wanted anything to eat beyond the very standard fare of chicken chow mein (made with those canned crunchy noodles), spaghetti, or if we were really lucky, homemade chicken soup, well, then I’d have to cook it myself. My mom was too busy welding in the garage (yes, welding; she’s an artist) to bother with Pillsbury Refrigerated Cookie Dough, never mind with freshly baked anything. I didn’t become a gourmet chef, but I do enjoy the smell of cookies in the oven and to this day I bake a hallah every Friday. When I was in high school and my parents went out of town for a night, I didn’t throw a rager; I threw a dinner party. My eclairs were a hit!
My mother’s lack of cooking comes honestly. When my grandmother passed away, I took her cookbook, intrigued at what could be in it. Were there instructions on over-dry brisket ? Does she detail how to make iceberg lettuce salads? (The answer? Yes to both.) But I think this page of her cookbook truly sums up where she stood on being in the kitchen:
Note the original recipe actually looks pretty good. I wouldn’t know. I never tasted it. I only ever had that notation at the bottom.
Through my family research (through this blog, actually!), I met new relatives. My great-great grandmother had a nephew that lived with her for a short period. That nephew had two kids, and one of them found me. The nephew, unfortunately, died fairly young. In the interest of their privacy, I won’t say more about them, but one of his kids was in possession of a taped interview with an older cousin, who spoke about the nephew and the family. Okay, that was a little convoluted. Let me simplify: There is an interview. They let me listen. Better. Of great interest to me was his description of the building my great-great grandparents lived during the 1910s. But that’s a topic for another post.
Something else fascinated me: they discussed the food the nephew’s wife made. They spoke of food of which I had memories: gribenes (fried chicken skin) and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). And they mentioned a dish I had never heard of and had to Google to figure out how to spell: P’tcha.
Daughter: Sugar cookies. Your mother’s sugar cookies–
Son: Cookies! Apple pie!
Cousin’s wife: And the hamantaschen and cake.
Son: I remember that.
Daughter: And p’tcha.
Son: What’s that? Is that a grass?
Cousin: Nah, cows legs. Cows’ legs.
Daughter: P’tcha and there was something else.
Cousin’s wife: Borscht?
Son: I remember borscht. Mama made a good borscht.
Daughter: It was two different things.
Cousin: There was the hot p’tcha. One was gel and the other one was soup. Hot p’tcha.
P’tcha is not actually cows’ legs, but their feet. How far we’ve come that such a dish sounds so alien, when less than 100 years ago, it was commonplace and a way to use up every last bit of possible food. When I was researching my novel Modern Girls, I often turned to Florence Kreisler Greenbaum’s International Jewish Cookbook from 1919. I turned to it now to find out how one makes p’tcha, and while it’s not referred to by that name, it has what is clearly a similar dish. It also has the laws for kashering (“The head and feet may be kashered with the hair or skin adhering to them”); a recipe for Calf’s Feet, Prunes and Chestnuts; and numerous recipes for calf’s foot jelly.
I would be, of course, remiss, if I didn’t leave you with Kreisler Greenbaum’s recipe for calf’s foot jelly, because I’m sure after reading all about it, you must be salivating.
SULZE VON KALBSFUESSEN (CALF’S FOOT JELLY), No. 2
Take one calf’s head and four calf’s feet, and clean carefully. Let them lay in cold water for half an hour. Set on to boil with four quarts of water. Add two or three small onions, a few cloves, salt, one teaspoon of whole peppers, two or three bay leaves, juice of a large lemon (extract the seeds), one cup of white wine and a little white wine vinegar (just enough to give a tart taste). Let this boil slowly for five or six hours (it must boil until it is reduced one-half). Then strain, through a fine hair sieve and let it stand ten or twelve hours. Remove the meat from the bones and when cold cut into fine pieces. Add also the boiled brains (which must be taken up carefully to avoid falling to pieces). Skim off every particle of fat from the jelly and melt slowly. Add one teaspoon of sugar and the whipped whites of three eggs, and boil very fast for about fifteen minutes, skimming well. Taste, and if not tart enough, add a dash of vinegar. Strain through a flannel bag, do not squeeze or shake it until the jelly ceases to run freely. Remove the bowl and put another under, into which you may press out what remains in the bag (this will not be as clear, but tastes quite as good). Wet your mould, put in the jelly and set in a cool place. In order to have a variety, wet another mould and put in the bits of meat, cut up, and the brains and, lastly, the jelly; set this on ice. It must be thick, so that you can cut it into slices to serve.