The great gefilte fish fight


Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopf and celery.

Gefilte (pronounced guh FILL tuh) fish is a Jewish delicacy that’s eaten year-round, but it’s popular at Passover because we celebrate the holidays with festive meals. Those who make gefilte fish from scratch don’t often do so for an ordinary meal–it has to be worthy of the considerable bother.

Gefilte fish literally means stuffed fish. Originally the European Jews who developed this dish would take a whole fish, scrape out and debone the meat and chop it (often adding chopped vegetables), put it back in the fish skin and bake it.

These days, few bother with the fish skin, instead forming balls out of the ground fish mixture and boiling them. You can get gefilte fish in jars and cans in supermarkets in Jewish areas–but it doesn’t hold a candle to home-made. Recently stores have also started selling frozen “gefilte fish” loaves that you can boil whole and then slice. These products are tastier than the canned or jarred products–but home-made still reigns supreme.

There are as many variations as there are European towns where Jews once lived. The biggest dividing line seems to be sweet vs. non-sweet. Sugar in a fish dish may sound weird, but trust me, the end result is delectable!

Here is a link to a delightful 14-minute film about three generations of women and their relationship to gefilte fish.

By Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

My grandparents made the big family seder at their apartment in the Bronx every year. When Grandma could no longer do all the preparation, other women in the family, including my mother, teamed up to clean and cook.

When Grandpa died, my father took over the role of leading the seder. When my mother fell ill and could no longer prepare for the seder, my sister Miriam (Mimi) took a few days off from work to get the house ready, and to help get Dad ready to host the seder each year.

This was a declaration, not a proposal to discuss.

The first seder without Dad

And so my sister came to visit us in California a few days before Passover, in time to help with the planning and cooking to get us ready for the seders. My wife, Marilyn, and my sister Mimi did the work together, to prepare; other relatives would come later, to join the celebration.

But it would be a bittersweet celebration. Dad had died in November. The seder would be in California, as he had foretold, but he would not be there.

By 1993, my wife and my sister had known each other for 24 years.  They had become friends almost immediately after they met, good friends. By 1993, they might have even been best friends to each other. On the rare occasions when they disagreed, they talked things over and decided together. They even worked together smoothly in the same kitchen.

And so preparation for the 1993 seders went smoothly, as everyone expected.  Marilyn and Mimi planned the menus, shopped together, assigned each other tasks, and cheerfully worked together preparing festive meals. Until they had a fight, their first real fight ever.

It had to do with who would prepare the gefilte fish.  My sister – who generally does not insist — insisted that she would prepare the gefilte fish. My wife – who generally decides in an instant what is important and what is not important – refused. This was important; she was going to prepare the gefilte fish. They could not talk this one over; they could not break the impasse. Neither of them could do any more cooking that day.

My wife suffered a night of interrupted sleep.  How could she sleep well, in the middle of a fight with her best friend? And why did they have to fight over a pot of fish?

Why did it matter?

By morning, Marilyn had figured out why who made the gefilte fish mattered, and why it would not matter anymore. Either recipe would taste fine, but the fish had a back story, or rather, two back stories.

My wife learned her recipe from her Grandmother Keanig. Her grandmother did simple cooking, only a few foods she learned to cook the old-country way.  Grandma did not work from written recipes – who knows if she had learned to read in any language? – but her hands knew what to do.

The last decade of Grandpa Keanig’s life, Grandma had stayed right beside his sickbed every single day.  After he died, Grandma Keanig flew out to visit us. During that visit, she taught my wife her recipes by showing her and cooking with her. My wife would recite her grandmother’s instructions out loud, and my daughter – then a first-grader — sat in the kitchen with a pencil and a notebook writing down those instructions in a childish hand.

Every year, in a ritual telephone call before Rosh Hashanah and another before Passover, Grandma would want to know how the fish came out. And every year, before Rosh Hashanah and before Passover, my wife would report, “The fish came out good, but not as good as yours.”

In my family, Grandma did just about all the preparations for the seder herself.  Grandpa made fresh grated horseradish with fresh-squeezed lemon juice,  touch of sugar and fresh grated beets. Grandpa made haroshes, a sauce of apples, nuts and sweet red wine. But Grandma did the cooking.  She had daughters and daughters-in-law, whom she loved and appreciated, but who were not allowed in the kitchen when Grandma worked.

Also unwelcome in the kitchen were the granddaughters, except for my sister. Grandma appreciated the way Miriam, even as a young girl, got things done, efficiently and quickly, with a minimum of fuss, cleaning up as she worked, taking instruction easily. Making gefilte fish was among the many skills Miriam learned in Grandma’s kitchen.

The question did not really hinge on the difference in flavor between the two recipes. My grandma, originally from Zlotopol in Ukrainian Russia, made a peppery version, perhaps in the Ukrainian style, or perhaps just because Grandma liked pepper. Marilyn’s grandma, from Brisk in Byelorussia, used less pepper and more sugar.

The root of the question

The real question hinged on whose traditions would go into making this seder. Which style of fish got served, and which person made the fish, really stood for whose seder we would have.

Of course in practice, the seder would have elements from both families. The fight was over. Mimi made the gefilte fish that year. The next day, Marilyn summarized the experience with the observation that she and her friend Mimi could manage “one fight every 24 years.”  I hope that does not mean they have another fight coming up next year.

As for the recipes, the notebook with Grandma Keanig’s gefilte fish recipe showed up a few years ago as we packed for a move. We gave the notebook to our daughter, who has become quite an accomplished cook.

A recipe in my wife’s card catalogue reads “Grandma’s Gefilte Fish.” It does not specify whose grandma, but it has sugar and not much pepper.

Note: Buy fresh fish and ask the person at the counter to fillet it for you and give you the skin and bones in a separate bag.


Still Life With Brandied Peaches

A NOTE FROM BOBBIE LEWIS: In the mid-1970s, it seemed like everyone had a big glass jar of brandied fruit on their kitchen counter. It looked so pretty: yellow pineapple chunks, orange peach slices, maraschino cherries. And it tasted so good as a topping for pound cake or ice cream!

We got a “starter” cup from a friend. We added fruit and sugar, waited a week or so for it to ferment, then dug in. We needed to “feed” it every couple of weeks with more sugar and fruit. The idea was that when the jar was full, we’d  give some to a friend so they could start their own pretty glass jar full of brandied fruit. This was the pyramid scheme of desserts. It didn’t take long to run out of friends—because all the friends we’d already given it to now had growing quantities of brandied fruit that they needed to foist onto their own friends! And there’s only so much boozy pound cake and ice cream one can eat.

After about six months, we euthanized our brandied fruit by eating it all up. I thought of those happy days when I read this lovely essay by guest blogger Eli Finkelman, who last instructed us about making pickles. He is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a cook, brewer, vintner and assistant to the cheese-maker with whom he shares his home.

By Louis “Eli” Finkelman

He loved the United States of America. After all, he had come here as a teenager, alone in a strange land, and had found opportunities to raise the money to bring just about his whole birth family to America. He worked hard and planned efficiently, so that after his brothers and sisters came here, he continued to bring other relatives. He had to. His people had no future in Europe.

He took one job after another here, whatever people would pay him to do. At one point he even had a little kosher butcher shop, but he had little aptitude for butchery. His wife saw him try to handle a meat knife and after that would not let him cut the meat. Eventually he earned enough to move his young family from Harlem. He bought a new house in the farmland of the Bronx. He immediately arranged to join the other homeowners in buying land for a synagogue.

Summer in a tent city

Soon he could afford to take his family to the tent cities of Orchard Beach for their summer vacations. The tent cities divided by ethnic group. He could have chosen to live in a Jewish “neighborhood,” but he preferred an integrated one so that his children would see that non-Jews in America were decent people, and the non-Jews would see that the Jews were good neighbors, dependable people. He saved enough money to buy some rental property elsewhere in the Bronx, but even before the official start of the Depression, he earned very little. His tenants could not always afford to pay their rent. He would sometimes take his precocious middle daughter to ask for the rent. If his tenants could not pay, they would not take out their frustration against a little girl. He believed in observing American law scrupulously, both because he was an honest, law-abiding man, and because he owed a great debt to America, the land that had allowed him to rescue his family. One American law, though, he could not take seriously. Prohibition made no sense to him. He planted grapevines in the backyard in the Bronx, so he could have homemade wine for Kiddush: a glass of wine should always accompany the prayers that introduce festive meals. Even the law of Prohibition allowed a person to make sacramental wine at home.

A still in the basement

Not quite as legal, he had a still in the basement, for making overripe fruit into brandy. He knew someone who had a fruit store, so there was always a source of fruit. After synagogue every Saturday morning, and every festival morning, he would invite the people from the synagogue over to his house to share huge pieces of cake or great oblong fruit pies, and one small shot of brandy each. He understood that in America there were men who drank the rent money, who came home drunk and beat their wives, or who got drunk and did not come home at all. But he could not understand how those poor women would be helped by a law that prevented the folks who visited his home in the Bronx from having their one shot each of fruit brandy. The still lasted longer than Prohibition. He lived to see the beginning of World War II, and the beginning of the realization of his worst fears about what Europe meant for Jews. He would read the newspapers, in those days, and say one bitter word: “Civilization.” After he died, his youngest son took the still apart and got rid of all those copper pipes. So I never saw the still; I saw only the ceramic crocks that once held homemade wine and brandy, made by my grandfather, Elias Hirsch Lang, who died before I was born. I know these stories because I heard them, more or less in these words, from my mother, the precocious little girl who tried to collect rent in the Bronx.

An elixir called Rumtopf

The following recipe is for an elixir the Germans call Rumtopf. They use layers of fruit as they come into season, so they get a mixed fruit liquor as a result. The Joy of Cooking calls it Tutti-Frutti Cockaigne, the name for an imaginary country where people have enough to eat. (It is also the name of the authors’ country home;  they append the word to their favorite recipes.) I like the single fruit model. The alcohol and sugar should keep the mixture fresh indefinitely. Make it now, and sometime in the winter, open up the crock and enjoy a taste of summer! (For more about spiked fruit, see this terrific article from the New York Times.)