Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Gefilte Fish
SWMBO’s gefilte fish, with its traditional garnish of carrot slices.  Less traditionally, she glazes the fish with tomato sauce or tops it with lemon pepper... delicious either way.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting Eli (hizzownself) and listening to him regale one of his buddies with stories of the Old Neighborhood, a discussion that had started with a few nostalgic comments about Gefilte Fish.

There are not many people aside from us Red Sea Pedestrians who will wax nostalgic on the topic of gefilte fish... mainly because, unlike, say, bagels, these little fish dumplings have not, as yet, made it to the American culinary mainstream. I used to say that that was because gefilte fish was something of an acquired taste, but that’s not really true. Properly prepared, it’s really a fine dish... with or without the sinus-clearing blast of chrain - horseradish - that usually accompanies it.  More likely, it’s just too frickin’ ethnic.

It may also be because the only example most people have ever seen are those nasty jars from Manischewitz, crammed with lumpy little fish balls in an unspeakable jelly. Even the most dedicated aspic lovers get a little queasy when confronted with the goop from a gefilte fish jar, never mind that it doesn’t taste nearly as vile as it looks. Sometimes you’ll find the stuff in cans, the main advantage of which is their opacity.  (What you can’t see can’t gross you out.)

But Eli remembers when his mother - my grandmother - would make gefilte fish from scratch, and that was an entirely different kettle of, err... fish.

She would procure carp, whitefish, and/or pike, carefully remove the skin and bones, then chop the flesh into a fine paste. This she would blend with eggs, matzoh meal, onions, and her secret blend of eleven different herbs and spices before stuffing it back into the fish skin to be poached. (“Gefilte” means “stuffed.”)

There were no food processors back then. I seem to remember my grandmother grinding the fish up in a meat grinder, but that could have been something else. Kreplach filling, perhaps. Most of the time she would use a wooden bowl with a curved chopper that fit right into the bowl - what Italian housewives would call a mezzaluna, and in Yiddish a hock-messer.

What my dad recalled in such poignant detail was that Friday afternoon was gefilte fish day. The sound of hock-messers smacking against wooden bowls would reverberate throughout the neighborhood as all of the housewives made the gefilte fish for that evening’s Shabbat dinner.

I remember my grandmother’s gefilte fish. Compared to the boring commercial versions, it was a bit... scary. It looked like a fish, for crying out loud! But as I got older, I learned to appreciate the qualities of the homemade product. It was fresh, not nearly as bland. And its lumpy surface bore the imprint of my grandmother’s hands.

Gefilte fish may go mainstream yet. And when it does, I’ll be ready.

*The Fish of Yesteryear


Rahel Jaskow said...

I used to use the chopper and wooden bowl to prepare the family's chopped liver.

Joe said...

Since I believe the only stupid question is the one you don't ask, what is the point of chopping the fish? Is it to make the equivalent of a fish meatloaf; to stretch less than desirable "cuts" of fish into a meal? I get the fish on the Sabbath, just not the making of the gefilte fish dish itself.

Elisson said...

@Joe - Exactly: Gefilte fish is simply fish meatloaf. Not only does it stretch the fish with fillers like eggs, matzoh meal, carrots, and onions, but it allows the complete removal of bones, so that one may enjoy eating one's fish without having to deal with the bones.

Actually, it's a tradition to eat meat on the Sabbath. The fish is just the appetizer!

Joe said...


BobG said...

Reminds me of the fishcakes I ate as a child made from leftover fish, except we fried them rather than poaching them.

Elisson said...

@BobG - Everything tastes better fried. Well, almost everything.

Kevin Kim said...

Now I'm going to have to get all sacrilegious and make faux-gefilte fish using Korean odaeng (processed fish cakes made of fish "paste"-- see here).

Looks great.