Gefilte Manifesto makes Ashkenazi foods cool

About five years ago I went to a program about sustainable food at Detroit’s Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and met Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a young man visiting from New York who was about to open a company called the Gefilteria.

He and his partners, Liz Alpern and Jackie Lilinshtein, loved Ashkenazi cuisine – the foods invented, passed one and immortalized by the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.

In the last 50 years or so, Ashkenazi food has fallen out of favor. Too heavy, people say; too bland, too much fat, too much salt, not enough fresh produce.

Reclaiming gefilte fish

The Gefilteria aimed to reclaim gefilte fish and other typical Ashkenazi Jewish foods for the 21st century. As the founders explain on their website, “Jewish delis were closing. Our grandparents were getting too old to cook. Ashkenazi cuisine was perceived as a thing of the past, if perceived as a cuisine at all. We were friends in our 20s and we heard the call. It felt like something big was at stake. We came together with a fresh approach – to create a culinary laboratory where Ashkenazi stories and culinary wisdom from the Old World could be explored and brought into the New. So, we wrote a manifesto and launched The Gefilteria.”

The “Gefile Manifesto” tells what they’re about – and what they’re not. “Gefilte is not just about your bubbe. It is not about kitsch or a foodie revolution,” says the manifesto. “Gefilte is about serving a dish with pride, not simply out of deference to hollow convention. It is about taking food traditions seriously and reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazi food – what it has been and what it can be.”

The Wall Street Journal raved about the product: “Founders Elizabeth Alpern, Jackie Lilinshtein and Jeffrey Yoskowitz have crafted an elegant terrine-like gefilte from whitefish and pike, topped with a pale-pink layer of salmon and steelhead trout, and blast-frozen to preserve the dish’s delicate texture and flavor. It makes for an attractive and festive plate, all the more so garnished with Gefilteria’s own jewel-toned horseradish, in sweet beet and zesty carrot-citrus varieties.”

Fish and more

Once the trio mastered the art of gefilte fish, which they sold via local stores (you can buy a loaf of Gefilteria Gefilte as part of a “Jewish Food Essentials” gift package available at The Challah Connection), they branched out to pickles, horseradish relish, borscht, black-and-white cookies (a New York staple) and other foods. They’ve developed a thriving catering business and like doing pop-up dinners.

Now Yoskowitz and Alpern have collected 100 Ashkenazi recipes into a beautiful cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto, named after their founding statement of purpose.

Interspersed with the recipes are short essays by Yoskowitz an Alpern explaining the background of the foods, giving some insight into the food based on their personal experience, or giving some family background about the recipe.

The book deftly combines the old and the new, relying on the Ashkenazi culinary traditions of seasonality and practicality even when introducing a recipe that would probably have shocked the authors’ shtetl forebears (roasted beet and dark chocolate ice cream, anyone?).

There’s a nice section about pickling, and along with the old-time “Classic Sour Dills”  there’s a trendy “Cardamom Pickled Grapes.” Right after the recipes for classic gefilte fish, there’s one for “Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Terrine.” There are instructions for pickling corned beef and pastrami at home. There’s a section on European Jewish breads, with a recipe for bagels and one for challah that includes illustrations showing how to braid the Sabbath loaves.

A recipe for the Jewish New Year

This week, we in the Jewish community are getting ready for Rosh Hashanah, which starts at sundown on Sunday, October 2.

It’s traditional to eat sweet foods as an indication of our wish for a sweet year to come, and to eat fall harvest foods, such as apples.

Here is a lovely recipe from The Gefilte Manifesto which they call “Ruth’s Apple Strudel.” Yoskowitz says it’s identical to the recipe he wrote down as a boy while trailing his grandmother, Ruth, in the kitchen.

To me it isn’t really a strudel, which I think of as very thin pastry spread with a filling, rolled up and baked, then cut into slices. This is more of a thin-crust, rectangular pie, but I know it’s a traditional Jewish dessert because my neighborhood bakery sells something similar. And it looks like a great recipe for the holiday!


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.