A Slice of Tradition — Miriam Devora Kutoff
One of the “wise men of Chelm,” the proverbial fools of Jewish folklore, was going fishing. A friend asked him “What kind of fish are you going to catch?” In typical Chelm fashion, the fisherman replied “Well, yesterday I caught a herring and the day before that I caught a pike; I think today I’ll catch a gefilte fish.” If you’ve ever seen gefilte fish, you’d find this funny, because a gefilte fish (literally stuffed fish) can’t be found in a river, stream, lake, or ocean. Rather, it is lovingly made by Jewish mothers or mass produced by Jewish food companies to bring its unique flavor to the traditional Shabbos (Sabbath) meal.
A great example of Jewish ingenuity, gefilte fish was developed to solve a problem. There is a custom to eat fish at all three of the meals served on Shabbos. This custom has multiple significances, including making the Shabbos special and enjoyable. However, this custom poses a problem, since fish is usually full of tiny bones and removing the bones is forbidden on Shabbos. To solve this dilemma, the Jews of sixteenth century Poland came up with an innovative solution. By removing the center of the fish before Shabbos, separating out the bones, grinding the flesh, and adding some thickeners and flavorings, they created a delectable filling with which to stuff the fish for a unique Shabbos treat. Not only did this resourceful invention solve the bone predicament, it also stretched this appetizer to feed the hungry mouths of the family plus a few needy guests. Eventually, Jewish cooks began grinding the entire fish and serving just the stuffing.
Gefilte fish usually appears as a white, spongy loaf. Alternatively, some cooks shape their fish into balls with a consistency most resembling that of meat balls or matzo balls. The variety of recipes results in a choice of tastes and textures, ranging from sweet to savory and from moist and fluffy to thick and bread-like. While cooking, gefilte fish emits a distinct aroma which fills the house with its Shabbos-eve ambiance.
Over the centuries, the gefilte fish concept has spread to the Jews of almost all European countries and become a Shabbos staple and a taste of tradition. Originally, a housewife would go to the market on Wednesday or Thursday to purchase live fish, usually a carp, pike, or whitefish. Often, the fish would spend its final night swimming around the bath tub with a young audience. When the cook was ready, she would prepare her large wooden bowl and her reliable chopping knife. Then, she would lovingly filet it, removing the bones, innards, and skin, before placing it in the voluminous bowl along with matzo meal, onion, spices, eggs, and sugar, according to availability and her heirloom recipe. After chopping it, perhaps while humming a favorite tune, she would delicately shape the fish and place it in a pot or pan to cook. In modern America, it became easier to buy the fish already ground. Today, the Jewish consumer can purchase canned, jarred, or frozen gefilte fish from a plethora of companies, but some women still make their own for special occasions.
Gefilte fish is traditionally served with a sliver of cooked carrot and a dollop of chrein (a mixture of horseradish and beets). Although this precursor of ketchup can also be purchased ready-made, some people prepare their own chrein, especially at Passover time. In recent decades, mayonnaise has become a very popular condiment for gefilte fish, sometimes on its own and sometimes accompanied by the traditional chrein.
Gefilte fish and its condiments have become a piece of Jewish folklore and have worked their way into stories, jokes, and camp songs. One tale told about gefilte fish, which my sister claims is true, asserts that a certain young student studying in Israel was invited to eat Shabbos dinner at a very traditional family. A friend of his warned him that this family’s gefilte fish was an insult to the pallet and recommended that he unobtrusively throw it out the window at the earliest opportunity. When the student was served gefilte fish, he wanted to follow his friend’s advice, but the host was sitting next to him and he felt compelled to be polite. The guest leisurely piled condiments on his fish as if preparing to eat it. When the host left the table for a moment, the student tossed the fish, covered in chrein and mayonnaise, toward the window. To his consternation, the window was closed!
When my grandfather was a child growing up in Jerusalem, his younger brother didn’t enjoy the taste of gefilte fish. However, he knew that if he stayed at the table, his mother would make him eat it. When he suspected she was about to serve it, he would hide in the laundry hamper! Since it is an acquired taste, many children would agree with this attitude toward gefilte fish, especially the jarred sort with the jellied, “goopy” sauce. Perhaps this attitude led to the childhood mispronunciation, “gefilthy fish.”
Although, like most cooking, preparing gefilte fish is usually the women’s job, husbands do occasionally step in to ensure that Shabbos has its traditional flavor. My brother- in-law has his own, quite in-character, recipe. In his version, first you put a clothespin on your expectant wife’s nose and lock her in the bathroom. After you freeze your fingers off as you unwrap the frozen loaf, you put it in a pan and douse it with a tomato paste concoction. You know the baking is complete when your wife hollers “Yuck! The apartment smells like fish!”
However you make it, a slice of gefilte fish on Shabbos is a slice of tradition. European Jews have enjoyed this delicious and practical dish for centuries. Gefilte fish brings joy: by itself, with chrein, and in stories. Perhaps popular feelings toward this food can be summed up by the old Yiddish expression “is nisht is nisht, gefilte fish.”