Gefilte Fish: Tracking Heritage
Through Boiled Balls of Fish
Gefilte fish, perhaps the most maligned food on the traditional Jewish High Holiday table, encodes its maker's ancestry as surely as hand-me-down stories and immigration papers, a local fishmonger says.
Jon Alexis of TJ's Fresh Seafood Market in Preston Forest Village claims he can almost always pinpoint where a customer's forebears first settled in the United States based on which fish they ask him to grind for their gefilte fish preparation. Although Alexis is quick to clarify his theory is based on purely anecdotal evidence -- "I don't want to upset anyone," he says -- he believes most recipes reflect a generations-old preference for certain flavors.
"These recipes are heritage, so you have that Antiques Roadshow thing," Alexis says.
Gefilte fish is ground fish meat mixed with egg, onion and matzo meal. While Jews in the Middle Ages stuffed the mixture back into the eviscerated fish's skin (gefilte is Yiddish for stuffed), most contemporary gefilte makers roll the fish-heavy blend into balls before poaching them in fish stock. Alexis explains the dish to his gentile customers by prompting them to imagine meatloaf made with fish.
"Nobody finds it strange to put beef in a loaf," he laments.
Any fish will do for gefilte fish. While Barbara Cohen had a minor juvenile Judaica hit with The Carp in the Bathtub, recounting Seder preparations in a traditional Flatbush home, many gefilte fish lovers swear by whitefish, pike and even buffalo, a bony "trash fish" that now shows up mostly at fried fish joints.
"There is no true recipe," Alexis says. "These recipes are passed down, as my mother would say, from generation to generation, hallelujah."
So one customer might request 2 pounds of whitefish and 2 pounds of pike. That's a gefilte fish recipe fit for a New Yorker, who probably looked to Lake Erie for gefilte makings. Another customer might order one pound of buffalo, one pound of carp and two pounds of lake trout, a fish commonly associated with Lake Michigan and beloved by Chicagoans.
The Jewish Daily Forward a few years ago defined gefilte fish as "ground-up freshwater fish," but Jews on the Gulf Coast long ago discovered saltwater fish worked for gefilte fish too. Jews whose ancestors lived in Southern towns still ask Alexis for one pound of freshwater tilapia and two pounds of saltwater snapper.
Alexis says the genealogy by gefilte fish phenomenon is particularly pronounced in Dallas, where so many residents were born someplace else. But the equally revealing sweet/savory divide, a vestige of Eastern European culinary practices, persists everywhere gefilte fish is eaten.
Back in 1965, a Yiddish language scholar proposed locating a "gefilte fish line" about 40 miles east of Warsaw. West of the line, people liked their gefilte fish sweet; east of it, they favored fish made with horseradish and pepper. Researchers suspect the many Jewish-owned sugar refineries in Warsaw may have helped steer local tastes toward sweet fish.
Interestingly, though, nobody wanted credit for the sugary gefilte fish. Polish gentiles called it "Jewish fish" and Polish Jews called it "Polish fish." Gefilte fish has never been stylish.
"It has this reputation as an odiferous, nasty thing," Alexis says.
Gourmands who have reclaimed and riffed on poverty foods from other cultures have kept their distance from gefilte fish, perhaps because fish seems inherently scarier and smellier than odd pig parts and leafy greens. Or perhaps, Alexis suggests, because the "kitsch of poverty foods" doesn't extend to Jewish cookery.
"People don't want to think of Jews as impoverished," he says.
Still, most eaters are unlikely to cite cognitive dissonance as the reason underlying their distaste for the dish, which has a mushy texture and gently funky flavor. Jarred gefilte fish -- the only gefilte fish most grocery shoppers ever see -- is aesthetically unpleasant, with its sand-colored patties suspended in thick fish jelly.
"Nobody told me I wasn't supposed to like gefilte fish," Alexis says. "That said, my shiksa fiancé says of all the new foods she's been introduced to, she can't get gefilte fish."
Gefilte fish aficionados would no doubt recommend a good dousing of horseradish, which is integral to gefilte enjoyment. The sharp condiment doesn't so much conceal as complement the dish: Think sauce on pizza, not sauce on barbecue.
Alexis says he encounters more gefilte fish ignorance than gefilte fish hatred. Customers who are ordering salmon steaks for their grill and shrimp for tailgate parties are often befuddled when they see Alexis give another customer a few pounds of ground haddock, fish bones, fish heads, skins and chopped onions. With the High Holiday season's gefilte fish rush just three weeks away, Alexis will soon have more chances to explain the dish.
"They always say 'interesting, I didn't know that'," Alexis says. "If you're a fish dork like me, that's really fun to watch."