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A Disappearing Delicacy

As ptcha—a classic Ashkenazic dish made from jellied calves’ feet—disappears from deli menus, American Jews lose a culinary link to past generations

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Making ptcha at home. (Tablet Magazine)

Ptcha, the humble dish of jellied calves’ feet, is on the verge of extinction in America.

While matzo ball soup and latkes have garnered crossover appeal as modern Jewish bistro fare, thus ensuring their survival here, this gelatinous appetizer never found a non-Jewish audience, and even its Jewish fans are disappearing, landing ptcha on the endangered list. In fact, the number of names for the dish—also known as sulz, drelies, fisnoga, or holodets—is greater than the number of menus where it still appears in New York City.

“I don’t think ptcha would be a big seller [for us],” said Kutsher’s Tribeca owner Zach Kutsher, who doesn’t sell the stuff. “It never came up in any menu conversations.”

Manhattan’s 2nd Avenue Deli does serve ptcha, but even there, the customer base is narrow—and shrinking. “We basically make it in the store for just a handful of customers who like it,” said owner Jack Lebewohl.

Ptcha is more than a dish, though: It’s a Jewish delicacy whose American history carries a story of immigrants, struggle, and resourcefulness. It’s a culinary heirloom that, unless passed on to the younger generation, will break a link to generations past.

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Ptcha at the Second Avenue Deli in ManhattanPtcha at M and I International Food in Brighton Beach

Ptcha at the Second Avenue Deli and, below, at M&I International Food in Brighton Beach. (Top photograph Grace Bello; bottom photograph Jenny Levison)

Ptcha originated in the 14th century as a popular Turkish soup, writes Gil Marks in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. The peasant dish was “based on lamb’s feet, known as paca corbasi,” he writes, “from the Turkish paca (foot), and called soupa patsas or simply patsas by the Greeks.” As the foot soup cooled, the gelatin congealed. When this dish spread to Central and Eastern Europe, cooks opted for cow’s rather than lamb’s foot and preferred the cooled jelly over the hot soup. Marks explains: “The dish allowed cooks to transform one of the least expensive parts of the animal into an Ashkenazic delicacy.”

Though ptcha was more popular in Eastern Europe, German Jewish immigrants were the first to document ptcha in the United States, notes Bonnie Slotnick, owner of New York City’s store Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks. “German Jewish immigrants were famously very assimilated, even when they were in Germany,” she said, thumbing through two separate halves of an 1890 edition of the Jewish-American Aunt Babette’s Cook Book. For instance, the book makes no mention of Passover and instead names Easter the ideal time to serve “metropolitan apple pudding” (ahem, haroset). She pointed to the ptcha recipe, listed in German as sulze von kalbsfuessen rather than as ptcha. Aunt Babette’s Cook Book’s treatment of sulze and Passover, Slotnick explained, holds a mirror up to a generation of Jews eager to adapt their customs to those of their former country Germany and their new homeland America.

In 1918, The International Jewish Cook Book reconnected ptcha with its Jewish heritage and included “those time-honored recipes which have been handed down the generations by Jewish housewives (for the Sabbath, Passover, etc.).” Author Florence K. Greenbaum, a Central Jewish Institute cooking teacher, includes two ptcha recipes, as well as instructions for setting the Passover table and “rules for kashering.”

Marks’ Encyclopedia notes that ptcha was “well received by most of the first generation of American Jews to be brought up on the dish” and was served at weddings. However, Lynn Jawitz of Long Island, a second-generation American who grew up eating ptcha, laments that her Galicia-born grandmother made the dish constantly. Her bubbe spent her life cooking it not out of celebration but out of utility. “They had tough, tough times during the Depression,” Jawitz recalled. “When you’re taking these bones and making stuff out of them, it just sort of shows that maybe you couldn’t afford the meat.”

Judy Bart Kancigor calls ptcha “standard shtetl fare” in her 2007 book Cooking Jewish: “My friend Marci Klein thinks good [ptcha] must be covered with a thin film of soot, as her mother always cooled it on the fire escape.”

Rose Levy Beranbaum, award-winning author of The Cake Bible, told me via email about her memories of ptcha. Although her Russian émigré grandmother served it to her uncle, who loved the dish, she wrote: “I would never have dreamed of touching it.” Still, Beranbaum includes a ptcha recipe in her 1994 book Rose’s Melting Pot and states that this meal, developed by Jews who “could not afford more expensive cuts of meat,” was also a “truly ethnic delicacy, a sort of Slavic/Jewish soul food.”

Lebewohl, who as a toddler immigrated to the United States with his family after World War II from a displaced-persons camp in Italy, recalls being raised on the savory jelly. “My mother made ptcha all the time, and I developed a taste for it for that reason,” he said, which is why he still includes it on his eatery’s menu. “It’s the type of food that you come in to eat that reminds you of home, that reminds you of what your mothers and grandmothers used to make.”

However, the demand for ptcha is slowly declining. Lebewohl said. “I’m 63 years old, and the people who normally eat it call me ‘Hey, sonny!’ ‘Hey, kid!’ That gives you an idea of the age of the people who eat it.” He remembers one elderly woman who, up until about 10 years ago, would call the restaurant every year to order a tray of ptcha for her husband’s birthday. “And then, all of a sudden, she stopped calling,” he said. As long as ptcha remains a relic of the turn of the century, the Depression, and the Lower East Side shtetls, it will pass on at the same rate as its mostly elderly fans.

So, is there any way to bolster ptcha for the younger generation? Beranbaum had one idea: “What with all the garlic and wonderful chewy morsels, perhaps the best way to get people interested is to change the name to something more appealing. It is not that dissimilar to various gelatin-based recipes that come from other European countries such as France [which has] oeuf en gelée.”

Alain Cohen, owner of Los Angeles’ Got Kosher, notes that his “old school” Tunisian dishes with calf’s foot, such as t’fina camounia, now court “a crowd of American fans [who] like to explore new dishes.” Beranbaum and Cohen suggest that, in order to preserve ptcha, restaurateurs must rebrand the dish for foodies in search of the luxurious and exotic.

After all this talk about ptcha, it’s time for me to try some—for the first time. As I sit on a midnight-blue barstool at the 2nd Avenue Deli’s counter, I slice into the bizarre, obscure appetizer that I’ve been researching for weeks. I take a bite, and as the garlicky gelatin hits my tongue, I’m surprised that it’s not the unappetizing peasant dish I was expecting. I had assumed that ptcha would be as musty as the 1890 copy of Aunt Babette’s Cook Book. Instead, it is savory and sour and satisfyingly mushy. With its neat appearance, its translucent amber hue, and its settled flecks of meat, it looks not unlike an odd gem, luminous and undiscovered.

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Carol Froman says:

While I was in college (don’t ask how long ago THAT was), a boyfriend’s father presented me with a generous serving of ptcha during my first visit to his house. This was clearly a test. What’s not to love about stiff garlic jello with bones?

Yeah, ptcha is like yiddish, “on the verge of extinction in America” — at least as long as you don’t count the shuls and stores of orthodox Brooklyn as part of America. 

frances_leah says:

I preferred it in the soup version.  My mom would mash the yolk of hard boiled  egg into it too.  How about a recipe?

My mother used to love to eat ptcha. I watched her roll the calf’s foot jelly around her mouth and I turned green!
 

verushka1 says:

My Belgian grandmother made this dish all the time.  It is delicious and not at all as the author describes it.  It should be eaten cold, with lemon squeezed on it.  You can also put chopped flat parsley on top and also diced onions if you want.  Not difficult to make. A recipe would have been nice for the author to include.  THis dish is delightful to eat, very nourishing and very high in protein. The Belgian Jews call it Gallereta and it is considered a delicacy.

The Jews from former Soviet Union cooked this dish a lot. We called it “Holodets”. Russian (not Jews) use pigs’ feet, but Jews use calves’ feet or as our family recipe use chicken feet and chicken neck. It is so popular, so you can find “Holodets” in almost every Russian deli or Russian supermarket in New York. Some of them offers a kosher ones, but most of them is not kosher.

gemel says:

Ptcha was served in my shul after Shabbos morning prayers when there was a special kiddush such as a bar mitzvah or memorial anniversary  (yahrtzeit).  Most of us kids would not touch it but the adults relished it.

rbassan says:

My great aunt lived in the Bronx and frequently visited with us for a few days each month,   helping my mother with the kids and cooking Jewish food for us.  Each time she made gefilte fish, chopped liver and ptcha, which none of us would go near and she always ended up taking most of it back with her to the Bronx.  During her cooking extravaganza my father would strategically arrange fans around the kitchen to keep the odors away from the bedrooms.  The routine went on for years until my father finally asked Aunt Tina why she made it at our home and then brought it back to the Bronx.  She quickly replied that her neighbors wouldn’t allow her to prepare ptcha and they were nice people.  She never made it again in Hillsdale, NJ but I can still remember the smell and the delight on her face as she dug in.

Iris Ailin-Pyzik says:

Good grief, I hadn’t thought about this for I don’t know how long.  My mom used to make this for herself and my dad and my grandmother when she was visiting.  I thought it was absolutely horrible when I first ate it, and I never grew to love it, but it was – er – interesting.   When she made it, it was a block of savory gelatin atop a layer with little bits of meat at the bottom.

philipmann says:

  The best part is if you alternate a bite of this stuff-especially the fat-with a sip of scotch.

Also known as Aspic if you want to search for recipies.

I visiting remember my great aunt and uncle in Miami  back in the late 70s or early 80s on an occasion when my great aunt was making ptcha. It impressed my mother; I think her mother and aunts used to cook it. My father was horrified at the idea of ptcha when my mother told him about it. He considered it “peasant food”. He called kasha varnishkes “Polish peasant food” too. His family never cooked either dish, apparently. They came from Lithuania originally while my mother’s side came from the Ukraine.

wishnitz says:

I too, grew up in Belgium and we called it “galeretta”- am not sure what language it is. However, the garlicky taste was the best of it…coupled with whisky, of course !

alschein says:

My parents, who were from Poland, called it “gallareta”, which I assumed was a Polish word.  My mom used a lot of paprika when she made it, so the top was more red than brown.  

This is not an unusual occurrence.  My bet is that if you went into many homes of the children or grandchildren of “peasant” parents of a variety of ethnicities , you would find the exact same situation.  How many Scandinavians want to eat fermented shark meat?  

Yes, my mother would make Ptcha about once a year.  I’d walk into the house, do a 180, and head for the Hot Shoppe (an ethnic restaurant peculiar to Washington, DC natives). 

KateGladstone says:

Please post recipes: how to make it/cook it/serve it.

Whoever thinks that ptcha is disappearing clearly hasn’t been to any recent chasidic functions. The kiddush I attended last summer didn’t just feature a ptcha platter–there was a whole ptcha table! As a child, I thought it was gross. So, as an adult, with a developed gourmet palate, I decided to try it again. And you know what? It’s still gross.

chayar says:

There is no ptcha shortage at all, it’s everywhere.  In Williamsburg, Boro Park, and Flatbush virtually every Ashkenaz (non Sephardic) meat take out place sells ptcha, which they call gala short for galaretta. I can’t stand the stuff, but always feel compelled to try a small bite, because everyone else keeps telling me it’s wonderful. It smells and tastes like slick and greasy, barnyard foot-jello, with garlic.

davidrothnc says:

Ptcha was one of those things your parents ate. My father, in particular, ‘kvelled’ when my mother made ptcha. I remember the smell of the simmering gelatin and feet, a kind of aromatic congealing that seemingly made the air in our apartment laden with an olfactory fog that would otherwise be repugnant were it not for the addition, in my mother’s version, of a quantity of garlic unknown to local markets and, of course, dill. The pungency of the garlic and sweet tones of the dill infused the otherwise bland jelly into a gourmets delight with chunks of rendered meat and grizzle floating in the mold. It is always fun for kids to go ‘yiccch’ and show in their contorted faces the disdain for foods that admittedly look and smell as weird as ptcha. But, then over time, with the addition of that sprinkle of salt and now a freshly ground twist or two or pepper, ptcha became something I looked forward to and relish. Today, on the few occasions I have served ptcha right out of the Pyrex dish, I have found myself left with a three weeks supply (you cannot just eat but a little square) and my wife complains of the smell in the refrigerator. I hope that a passion for traditional foods keeps this miraculous and most delicious dish alive.

P.S. Mushy would never be a word to describe ptcha unless ill prepared.

I remember that it was there for the after prayers kiddush, curiously, or  perhaps not so curiously after reading this article, I have not seen Galerette as we call it here, in a long time.

Culinary Link?  Thank God I am a Sepharadi! I was 20 years old when I tasted gefilta fish and thought I had visited the dark side of the moon.  Some things deserve to go the way of the wind!

Not once could I ever bring myself to taste this as a child growing up in Brooklyn. Nor could I stand the thought of eating tongue.

I’ll leave this to the culinary adventurists to revitalize this horror of a dish!

I remember my Mom also made it, and there is no way I would go near it. All these foods (tongue, ox tail  also) are probably the reason I’m a non-meat eater.  But the use of all parts of the animal (nose to tail, although not in compliance with Kashrut) is respectful to the animal which has been killed for consumption.

The disapearance of ptcha from Jewish cuisine is no great loss.  Back in the 40s my mother made it for dinner and my sister and I were so revolted by its look and taste we ate only a mouthful.  Mother put the leftover in the refrigerator, a unrebutable sign to us that it was sure to reappear soon.  The next day a stray dog folled my sister and me home from school.  We seized on the opportunity to get rid of the ptcha  and put it out for the dog.  Though hungry, he refused to eat it.  We knew that this was a dog of impecable taste and manners and so we adopted him.  He was a great dog, whose only misdeed was to eat our father’s portion of chopped liver that had been plated on the table in anticipation on our return from Friday night services.
Ah Rex, we miss you.

SFMichele says:

My father’s Slovak (Catholic) family made this same kind of dish — with pork hocks and loads of garlic — and it was known as studzienina. You’ll find more references online to this dish as being of Polish origin. Truly a kind of dish that traverses geography in that region.  I ate it as a small kid (not knowing any better?) because of the salt and garlic and the texture. It was the kind of dish that was difficult to explain to many friends who did not have Eastern European roots! 

stinkystinky says:

I loved it. When my grandmother was alive in the Bronx, I was a little boy and we went to her apartment. She made grevines, ptcha, and brains with chicken fat. I ate it all and my grandfather ate it. She always had a fresh, crispy seeded rye bread. My parents not so much liked it.
 

Hassidim still eat ptcha. For some reason they call it “galleh” short for gallerata. Here in Jerusalem you can find it in the takeaway places on Malchei Yisrael Street in Geula. Me, as of yet, I haven’t found the nerve to taste it, but I think it’s quite healthy–no fat, just aspic and low fat. Thanks for an interesting article.

We have the dish regularly at big family get-togethers under the name holodetz. You can still get your hands on it in Russian-speaking communites like Brighton Beach in New York and Devon Avenue in Chicago. Just remember to grab the necessary topper, beet horseradish, most likely on a shelf nearby.

judyepstein says:

Ahhh, my grandmother made it both hot and cold.  Hot was like a very gelatin-y broth, redolent of garlic.  We would dip challah into it and suck on the bones.  I wasn’t a fan of it cold, but hot…oh so yummy!

Eden19567 says:

What a funny word! Who said it was Jewish? Russians eat it all the time, they call it “studen'”

Rifkale says:

My Mom still makes it, though by another name: Holodetz! Once I also made it, came out fine… I love this dish!

Leah Palmer Preiss says:

If you truly want to keep ptcha alive, I know just where to pitch it! The burgeoning Paleo diet community embraces making homemade bone broths and using all the parts of an animal. I’m betting you could introduce this dish to a whole new audience & possibly make it more widely available.  Try 
http://www.paleofx.com/ or 
http://www.marksdailyapple.com

Joyce Musnikow Harris says:

I am a NJ home cook who still makes ptcha a few times a year(relishing the experience). Hot, the garlicy odor and flavor and “sucking of the bones” is a pure delight filled with memories. Cold, served with lots of lemon and freshly cracked pepper is just another phenomenal flavor experience. Ptcha quickly disappears from our refrigerator. I follow my mother’s recipes and comments handwritten into her copy of The Forward Cookbook combined with The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook recipe. While the older folk of the family are mostly gone, my immediate family and a few friends continue to request this delicacy several times a year! My son who is a chef has even taken ptcha to past professors and chefs with whom he works, to their delight! I know that this dish will continue in my family, with all of the stories attached.!

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I can’t stand the stuff, but I would miss it if it weren’t served at family affairs. By the way, whether it’s served on holidays is a pretty good indication of how many generations a family is removed from Eastern Europe.

Brad Naprixas says:

In Riverdale’s “Second Helping Deli”, I got a chance to taste this dish. Not quite my cup of tea, but it was a new experience and I’m sure anyone searching for it can find it up here.

Predictions of the p’tcha’s demise are very premature. In the Russian-speaking Jewish community, the dish is very much alive and is known as holodets.

Treif versions of this dish can be found at any gastronom on Brighton Beach Avenue or Kings Highway.

Beth Johnstone says:

My grandma used to make ptcha and I’d come home from school and devour it… First I’d eat it hot as a soup… While it was cooling … Then the way you described … Cold and garlicky and delicious… She came to this country in 1889 from Russia as an infant… The oldest of what would be 11 children…they lived on the lower east side but then later in what is now Harlem.. She married a German Jew who may have had his mother teach her how to make it… Oh if I could taste it again I’d be thrilled!

Pat Goldman says:

Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for evolving into an endangered species. Perhaps ptcha is of this species

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A Disappearing Delicacy

As ptcha—a classic Ashkenazic dish made from jellied calves’ feet—disappears from deli menus, American Jews lose a culinary link to past generations

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