Monday, March 22, 2010

Gefilte Fish

Once a year we have a Seder for Passover -- it's coming up next week. And thus once a year, we eat gefilte fish. The jar from which I get the fish hasn't changed since my childhood, when my mother also served gefilte fish once a year for the Seder. I think of it as much in the list of ritual foods as its garnish of horseradish -- symbol of the bitter lives of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. As symbolic as the matzo with charoset or the parsley dipped in salt water. Much more traditional than the recently introduced orange, which symbolizes women being equal in all respects.

Gefilte fish is the paradigm of Jewish food, and among the observant, was traditional for Friday night Sabbath meals as well as holidays. Although minced fish balls may play a role in other cuisines (such as quenelles in France) the preparation is mainly unknown in American non-Jewish households, and elicits a very dubious response from the uninitiated. Well, it does taste a bit fishy. But what does it symbolize? I wondered.

Searching for how this dish acquired its ritual status I did a bit of reading. Obviously the word "gefilte" (which means "filled" as in mincing the fish with bread or other starch and stuffing the preparation back in the skin) has a Yiddish or German origin. Under other names, though, Jewish minced fish has a much older history.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, many of the Jewish customs for celebration of the Sabbath were established and documented in the Talmud and other commentaries. In this era, two reasons emerged to eat fish. First, based on traditions from Syria and from various mystery cults, fish was associated with the coming of the Messiah (a tradition later reflected by Christian symbolism). Second, fish was associated with fertility, "Jacob gave his children a blessing that they should multiply like fishes." Eating fish, however, conflicted with the commandment to rest on the Sabbath. Removing fish bones was considered unacceptable "work." During Talmudic times, therefore, minced fish served in a pie became a common Friday night dinner choice. (Cooper, p. 64-65)

Fish, especially minced fish, continued to appear in Jewish history. In the 13th century, a Sabbath song declared "without fish there is no Sabbath." Medieval Jews in Spain prepared holiday and Sabbath fish with egg-lemon sauce. In the 16th century in Spain and Mexico, secretly-practicing Jews ate fish on Friday night; in 1488, the Inquisition accused a Jewish woman of making fish pies for Sabbath -- evidence of Judaizing. Modern Sephardic Jews in Turkey preserve some of these recipes. (Shostak p. 72, Gitlitz p. 232, Cooper p. 130)

The carp was the traditional Jewish fish in eastern Europe: "it has been suggested that Jewish traders along the silk routes assisted in the dissemination of the carp throughout southern and eastern Europe. ... the really poor Jews in eastern Europe were offered cheap river fish, such as roach, tench, and chub, for the Sabbath, or even a piece of salted herring." In Germany, Jewish carp recipes appear in the late 18th and early 19th century -- including a reference by Heinrich Heine to his aunt's Friday-night carp in brown raisin sauce. (Cooper p. 171, 177)

By the early 20th century, eastern European Jews had developed many recipes for what they now called gefilte fish. The dish was sometimes sweet, sometimes not. The use of sugar "followed the same boundaries as did the Polish-Lithuanian Yiddish dialects... there was a geographic belt of sweet gefilte fish wherever Hassidic communities settled." Pomiane, the observer of Polish Jews in the 1920s said, "On the Sabbath every observant Jew eats river fish." He described fish balls among other Jewish fish preparations -- he found them tasteless and added horseradish. (Roden p. 107, Pomiane p. 123 & 135)

German and eastern European Jews brought these customs to America. A recipe for fish balls appeared in the first Jewish cookbook in America by Mrs. Esther Levy. During the early part of the 20th century, Jewish women evidently bought a fish every Thursday, kept it in the bathtub overnight, and turned it into gefilte fish on Friday. My grandmother and great-grandmother are said to have done this. Some time in the 1940s or 50s, kosher canned and bottled foods using Eastern European recipes appeared in American grocery stores. Families who retained the custom of Friday night family dinners thus had the option of traditional foods -- especially gefilte fish -- made instantly. Further, Jewish Americans now reflect their local food customs in the way they spice and prepare gefilte fish, though the fish balls may actually come from a jar -- for example, Southwest style gefilte fish served with salsa. (Levy p. 20, Nathan p. 144, Diner p. 195-196)

My mother usually bought Manischewitz brand fish, though occasionally maybe one of the other brands. Her cousin had a kosher canning factory where one of the early mass-produced gefilte fish preparations were made in the 1940s or maybe earlier, which may have been the start of her choice to buy rather than make it. Exactly once, she made it herself. I remember her standing by the stove with a boiling pot. She didn't feel that the result was worth the effort, as I recall. Maybe my father didn't like it that much.

I'm thinking about gefilte fish as I prepare for Passover, and also as I write my talk about "Who won the war between gefilte fish and chop suey?" The Jewish traders' role in bringing carp from China to Europe is a very interesting piece of information for this endeavor.

Sources: John Cooper, Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food; Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America; Gitlitz & Davidson, A Drizzle of Honey; Mrs. Esther Levy, The first Jewish-American Cookbook; Joan Nathan, Jewish Cooking in America; Edouard de Pomiane, The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes; Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food; Patti Shosteck, A Lexicon of Jewish Cooking.


~~louise~~ said...

What a well researched, fascinating post, Mae. I'm just going to have to "grab" this link for my weekly list for next week. Should I link it on the 29th?

I've actually experienced Gelite fish once in my life. We had a a very dear friend of the family by the name of Sam Hockman who visited my grandmother every day as far back as I can remember. Every Easter season they would "exchange" symbolic food to fortify their friendship. When I was around 8 or 9, I was "allowed" to partake in the Gefilte Fish. Although I didn't care for it then, I have never tried it again but I am delighted to learn of its history. Thank you so much for sharing...

Mae Travels said...

Louise --
The Seder is the evening of March 29 this year. So I think that would be the most logical link. The real ritual foods, associated with the Exodus story and celebration of spring, are of course the matzoh (unleavened bread), lamb bone, egg, parsley, salt water, and charoset (a fruit mixture representing the mortar to make pyramids).

~~louise~~ said...

Thanks Mae, I've got it all set up to post on Sunday's weekly list. I'm going to include your link too if you don't mind.

Cynthia Bertelsen said...


Lovely, informative post.

I just made blinis and potato pancakes Russian-style. Yum. Hope you'll share more about your father's culinary background.