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slow: writer at play

Vivian Henoch

Vivian Henoch
Northville, Michigan, USA
June 17
Writer and editor:myJewishDetroit.org
I write around. Follow me on Twitter @vivianhenoch or @myJDetroit


APRIL 10, 2011 7:14PM

What to Make of Gefilte Fish

Rate: 14 Flag

Eat this!
Not that.
The first and only thing you need to know about gefilte fish 
is that it’s nothing like the water-logged fish balls that come out of a Manischewitz jar. Nothing. Not even close.

The gefilte fish my grandmother used to make was a taste of heaven (as in, Oy! G-d in heaven forbid that I shouldn’t make The Fish this year. ) 

I remember The Fish: tender little oval mounds, mild in flavor, with sweet overtones of carrot and onion, a Jewish holiday delicacy served on fine china with a beet-red blast of horseradish. The combination would seem an incongruous affront to the palate, but the full effect shot through the nose straight to the brain, inducing tears and awakening every nerve in the body.

Eat gefilte fish made in the tradition of Jewish grandmothers,
and you know you’re alive.
"So what can I bring for dinner?"

Last Sunday I get a call from my nephew in Chicago.  He’s hosting 18 for a Passover Seder and wants the recipe for gefilte fish. . . . "just like his great grandmother used to make."  I describe in excruciating detail how I make gefilte fish, "just like mama's." Ten minutes later I get a call from my son’s fiance, J, who’s coming to Seder at D’s. In good-guest mode, she asks D what to bring, and instead of the prerequisite 
potato kugel or 
sponge cake, he reasons it’s time to initiate her into the compulsion of our family-style cooking and suggests, “How ‘bout The Fish?”

Wow, how 'bout that Fish?

With half the kitchen tools she needs still in her Bridal Registry, J takes on The Fish with high heart.  Jumping all too eagerly into the role of future mom-in-law, I “kvel” at her initiative. Thrilled to engage her in Talmudic-length discussions of All Things Fish, we cover the history and significance of the dish, the wisdom of using pike over pickerel, and the various idiosyncrasies of preparation.

“Avoid all recipes that begin with the biblical words, like On the First Day, I advise, “And don’t forget the paprika.” Yadda, yadda, Jerry-Seinfeld-style, what a fuss we make. When it’s all said and done, gefilte fish is a basic dumpling.

Here's what you do:

You go to a fish market.
You order white fish, whole.
You ask the fishmonger to gut, clean, grind, etc.
You take the heads and tails to make the stock or
You leave the mess of ‘em at the store and use chicken stock.
You take onions and carrots.
You chop ‘em fine for the fish mixture.
You slice ‘em nice for the stock.
You simmer the stock.
You mix eggs into the fish, don’t ask me how many.
You add matzoh meal, don’t ask me how much.
You salt and pepper to taste (who tastes raw fish??)
You add a little sugar (who measures?)
You put your hands into the bowl, pat and shape the mixture into ovals the size of your palms.
You plop them into the stock.
You cover and simmer until ...
You’re done.

That’s it. I didn’t learn this “recipe” at my grandmother’s knee. I know it by heart. Once a year, only on Passover, I call upon the spirit of Sarah Kaplan Tracht, of blessed memory. I make gefilte fish, by texture, taste and feel, by tradition and ritual, by mixing ingredients that evoke the delicious magic of her kitchen.
For those who insist on cooking with recipes, may I suggest  a higher authority?

Passover begins at sundown April 18th.  

In households that keep a kitchen "kosher for Passover," this week is the time for reckoning with all things "chametz" (leavened  food).  Any form of wheat, oats, barley, rye or spelt,  all bread, cereal and pasta, every grain of rice, all cookies and pastry,  even beer must be consumed, donated or otherwise banished from the cupboards before the holiday. Passover baking calls for matzo meal or matzo flour.  Lots of eggs and nuts go into the holiday meals as compensation for leavening and flour. Now there's a culinary challenge for you, not to mention a gastrointestinal complexity.    There are some things I believe in deeply.  Preparing the seder feast,  yes!   Cleaning cupboards? Not so much.  That's one holiday tradition I
 prefer to, uh... pass over.    

Happy Passover.   (And do try The Fish!)   

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hahahaha who measures. ;-)
I adore this! Bless you! Cover piece, cover piece, cover piece! xox
Robin... bless your heart. Cover? Tell it to Emily. Thanks for the good cheer!

Peeling... who measures, indeed!
You know, Vivian, I think I will! xox
This is really lovely.~r
Yes, Cover piece for sure ! I love the pictures and your writing, Vivian. I have to confess, though, the only Manischewitz I had was some awfully sweet wine at a ski trip as a freshman - and I got really turned off after that. What did I know then?
(likewise, Mani, Mani, well that, I thought it was one of those cooking wines, yuck)
I won't even try to cook this. Not because ti doesn't look appetizing, it really does, but because it's one of those things that you just need to know how to make.
I cannot even imagine Puerto Ricans giving up rice, not even for a day, they'll just go insane.
We did eat a lot of fish at my house, especially at what we call Holy Week, and come Thursday I'd make an obscene amount of pickled fish (?) that would last until Saturday. I just checked my translator, it says "pickling brine", so fish in pickling brine.
For all of Lent, fish every Friday. Though I am an islander I do not care much for fish. (or maybe I'm just turned off by cooking)
about gefilte, which I cannot possibly pronounce, what comes to mind are Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker
(my sincere apologies)

I promise to try some, if I find a person to cook it.

And yes, a cover piece, Skc be damned.

Oh so good to hear from you. Will have to watch the video.

As for pronunciation: guh-fil-tah. I believe it translates from the German word gefulte meaning stuffed (the classic recipe calls for the mixture to be wrapped back into the fish skin... but no, that has little appeal to me, or anyone for that matter.)
Granted, gefilte fish is an acquired taste... you have to prepare it and serve it with love.
I grew up Catholic with a Jewish father. The only gefilte fish I ever saw was the jar of Manischewitz. I couldn't believe he could eat that stuff. It's great to know that there is another way. (though I think it's probably too late for me).
Happy Passover!
I drinking the beer as fast as I can.
most people are afraid to try it because they can't pronounce it. Guh-fell-tuh and because they only see the stuff in the jar.
Your version looks soo much better than the jarred kind (which I have never tried- I'd prefer to be invited to a Seder). The most authentic recipes are the ones where you don't measure, you just "know" when it's right. Kudos on the EP!
I was completely prepared to be seriously offended at this dish, having cringed past many a Manischewitz Gefilte jar as I have trolled for exotic foods.

I still won't eat it.

Instead, why is this not on the cover with an EP?????
Wow... Grace and Xenon! Thank you for reading... and for your kind endorsement. This may be one of those posts that gets buried... maybe it's my timing, or maybe it's the title. Gefilte fish can definitely be a turn-off for some. But it's my story for the week, and I'm stickin' to it. What can you do?
I've often wondered what gefilte fish were (yes, I'm a southerner), now I know. I guess I'll have to wait awhile to taste it though!
Hey Scanner,
Thanks for dropping in... Southern food sensibilities definitely welcome.
Hi Vivian. One of the better "fish stories" I've run across. I'm glad to see you post. Enjoy your holidays. ;) Rated
Theresa - You light up my morning -- and the sun is already up with the promise of a warm spring day (finally in Michigan!) Thanks for your comment.
By the way -- 0f subject, but anyway... seeing your icon/avatar makes me want to paint one myself. I have yet to take up brushes... but branching out, who knows?
Happy Passover! Looks fantastic, and a far cry from the scary Manischewitz balls.
I've never eaten gefilte fish and now I'm feeling nostalgic hunger pangs for it! Well done!
From my childhood

Gefilte fish gefilte fish,
The more you eat the more you pish,
The more you pish,
The more you wish
You never ate gefilte fish.
This sounds so much better than the Manischewitz variety. I grew up Catholic, but have been the fortunate guest of some wonderful Jewish friends who have invited me to seders over the years. I was honored to share in the richness of this tradition. Thanks for sharing a taste of yours.