The recipe for jellied pigs feet has been passed down by generations of Eastern European cooks. Originally meant to recreate the aspic-covered dishes popular with the aristocracy hundreds of years ago, it is served on holidays like Easter or Christmas among Eastern Europeans and their diaspora.
My mother’s side of the family is Slovak. I am familiar with studzienina, the Slovak incarnation of jellied pigs feet. How is studzienina made? This is what my mother says:
Char the pigs feet — or trotters, as they are known in genteel society– and place in a kettle with just enough water to cover. Boil. Simmer until meat falls from bones. Add salt and garlic. Remove and divide the meat among several soup bowls. Strain liquid. Pour equal portions into each soup bowl. Refrigerate for several hours, allowing ‘jelly’ to set. Gather friends and family into the kitchen. Serve with homemade bread and gorge with gusto.
In the parlance of modern chefs, this is ‘nose-to-tail’ eating. The recipe is a testament to the frugality of generations past. No part of an animal is wasted.
Truth be told, studzienina never topped my list of favorite family recipes. I found other treats of Slovak origins infinitely more palatable. I would salivate at the thought of pirohi (meat, cheese or spinach-stuffed dumplings) or haluski (egg noodles with cheese and butter). Why ruin a perfectly good Jell-O by adding pineapple, cranberries or oranges? The same principle applies to gelatinous, meat-filled jello — more insidious and infinitely less palatable.
I was in second grade when I sampled studzienina for the first time. It was holiday time. My family had gathered around the table at my grandmother’s house. There was much ‘oohhing’ and ‘ahhhing’ as the just-set batch was removed from the refrigerator. At the time, we were studying the human eyeball in science class. I found a curious similarity between the studzienina and the aqueous membrane:“It looks just like an eyeball!” I screamed.
‘But it’s so good!’ everybody said. “Here! Try some salt and pepper and a hunk of bread!” They laughed. I ran away.
Jellied pigs’ feet would surface a decade later, during Easter dinner in the Ukraine. They jiggled and jockeyed for position, edging meat and shredded vegetables to the far edges of my dinner plate. This time, they were topped with vinegar. I ate it as quickly as I could, just to get it over with. I went to fetch something from the kitchen. To my chagrin, my supply had been replenished, this time more voluminous (and more gelatinous) than before.
Studzienina was, I was told, an acquired taste. I would most certainly appreciate studzienina — and its complex meaty, salty jiggliness — as I grew older. Fifteen years have since elapsed. This prophecy has not come to pass. I am in good company, though. My father, brother and sister also avoid studzienina like the plague.
My mother still loves it.