Gefilte Fish: an endangered delicacy

I must begin this blog post with an apology to my readers. I haven’t posted in a very long time. Yes, you guessed it! My post-election malaise. I did write some expressions of dismay, but I think they were quickly overtaken by an avalanche of words on the subject in all media: the real and the ersatz. I could hardly compete in this arena and I know that no barrage of mere words will make change. We must either act, or sit in misery for the next seven years, or so. It’s true, on this subject I am a pessimist. I think my better use of time is to keep working on my novel, set in a time that presages what had happened later and likely will happen again.

But the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, 5778, has cheered me greatly. It was my mother’s favorite holiday of the year and has remained mine. The very smells of Rosh Hashanah cooking emanating from the various apartments on my floor are a cause for a smile, though ordinarily I am not a fan of inhaling odors, no matter how innocuous, coming from other homes. The smell of honey cakes baking,

honey cake

Ahh, the sweet smell of honey cake

or brisket simmering can make me swoon. But there is one dish I doubt many, at least in my building, are preparing: gefilte fish.


For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is neither a newly discovered species, nor a mutant found in the Hudson river. It is a dish whose absence from eastern European Jewish celebrations of yesteryear would have marked the hostess as either lazy, or an incompetent novice. Why? Because it is a lot of work to make properly. To “make do” in modern America, some have taken to serving a non-descript grayish blob found squeezed into glass jars filled with yellowish gelatinous material produced by Manischewitz, or Rokeach. Those exceptionally lucky, may find a round of carrot, or two, ensconced in the jelly.

My mother was no slouch in the gefilte fish department. No, for her it wouldn’t do to go to fish store to pick up a freshly killed carp and pike (if the funds stretched that far.) She would buy the live fish, then put it in the bathtub to swim another day.

Fish store: only live carp or pike will do

fresh fish for true gefilte fish

Keep it fresh in the bathtub

Only when she was ready to prepare it, would she engage in a moment of violence to turn the swimmer into lovely fish flesh. She would grind it in a hand cranked grinder (feh, to the food processor) then mix it with onions, egg, and matzo meal, then fashion the mixture into dainty patties which would soon be simmered in a fragrant fish broth with carrots, leeks and spices. The result would be exquisitely flavored and served as the first course—either warm, or cold— on Rosh Hashanah and Passover.


No short cuts to make a flavorful Rosh   Hashanah fish

ingredients for real gefilte fish

Going beyond the glass jar

It is true that before gefilte fish migrated to Eastern Europe from Spain and the Middle East, it used to be prepared as above, but then the mixture would be stuffed (hence “gefilte” the Yiddish word for stuffed) into the fish skin and poached. That process eventually proved too troublesome even for excellent Jewish balabustas so the stuffing step was simply omitted.

Are you, perhaps, now expecting to hear about my gefilte fish? Sadly, after years of passing off the Manischewitz, or Rokeach gray lumps to my kids, they’ve rebelled. No one, born after the sixties wants to eat those and I am not going to such extremes as my mother. Sorry, kids. I’d rather spend my time working on my novel.

Happy Rosh Hashanah everyone!

May you have a sweet and happy year 

May your year be sweet and healthy. 

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