Gefilte Fish

We recently asked readers for their gefilte fish stories. We didn’t really say more than that, hoping for as broad a response as possible. Because, really, if there’s one odd part of the Passover seder to pick out, one bizarre element to explain to your friends and relatives who’ve never experienced a seder before, gefilte fish is as likely a target as any. Most other elements of the seder have direct explanations: they stem from the elements of the Haggadah, the story read at the seder that retells slavery in Egypt, the Exodus.

But gefilte fish? Stretching for a plausible answer, I once heard a desperate Hebrew school teacher explain that gefilte fish honored the fish of the Red Sea, which Moses parted allowing the Jews to cross, escaping the Egyptians. I’m not so sure of that one…

About ten years ago, debating a career change, a friend suggested I start a Jewish cooking show on television. And, in his words, he would be my ever helpful “gentile sidekick, asking such important questions as, ‘why is the fish gefilted?’”

Deb M. of Massachusetts sent us this in response to our request:

Still trying to figure out exactly what it is… No stories for me. Sorry, just yuck for now!

So what is gefilte fish?

A patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. Typical main ingredients include fresh water fish like pike, carp, and, most commonly, whitefish. Gefilte fish gets its name from the Yiddish for “stuffed fish” and is commonplace to have on festivals and Shabbos. Some say that gefilte fish became popular due to how it’s made: the deboning meant some Jews who don’t want to break the rules of the things you shouldn’t do on Shabbos would feel more comfortable having the fish, because they weren’t “choosing” not to have the bones. Also, the addition of breadcrumbs or matzo meal meant they could make the fish last longer.

Whatever the reason, many of us will be seated at Passover seders next week enjoying gefilte fish (often served with a side of horseradish – to help (or hide) the flavor).

To help get you ready for this culinary adventure, we received some interesting tales, often humorous, involving this Passover seder staple. Share yours in the comments!

Julie G. of Montreal, QC:

Back in 1990, my brother was 6 years old and a very picky eater. My parents had tried almost everything to get him to eat a variety of foods, to no effect. But what my brother wanted, more than anything else, was a Nintendo. So one night, in a fit of despair, my father made a deal with my brother: “If you finish the gefilte fish on your plate, I’ll buy you a Nintendo!” He knew that this ploy would fail, as so many of his ploys had failed in the past.

Wouldn’t you know it, in less than 30 seconds my brother’s plate had been wiped clean, and he stared up at my father with the excited, hopeful eyes that only exist in small children who know they’re just about to get everything they ever wanted.

My father bought him the Nintendo. My brother still loves gefilte fish.

Rebekah M of Philadelphia, PA:

My last semester of college, I made friends with a bunch of freshman that joined the fencing club. We were hanging out and some of my new friends, who were Jewish, were saying that they missed home and Jewish food. So I promised to make them lots of food. Between the 3 of them, they decided they wanted matzah ball soup, brisket, latkes, challah and gefilte fish. My friend David was quite insistent that there be gefilte fish.

The following Friday I went out and bought all I needed, including a jar of gefilte fish. I had everything set out when everyone got there, but I couldn’t open the jar of gefilte fish, nor could my dorm neighbors. When David arrived, I told him that I had bought the gefilte fish but he’d have to open it if he wanted any. He was also unsuccessful. People arrived sporadically over the next few hours; everyone that came in was told that they had to try and open the jar of gefilte fish. No one could. As the night went on, we forgot to tell people to open it. Every once in a while David would remember and loudly lament the fact that no one could open the jar of gefilte fish. Four hours later, it was still unopened and I made him take it with him back to his dorm.

I don’t actually know if he ever got the jar open and ate the gefilte fish.

@MarjorieMoon on Twitter:

Grandma would buy fresh pike & keep it in the tub till ready. I thought every grandma did this! Homemade and super yummy.

Karen K of San Francisco, CA:

My assignment for the seder was to bring the gefilte fish. Which meant going to the store and buying two jars, which I did. Of course I then had the task of placing the fish on individual plates to be distributed to each the guests. I was a young mother who enjoyed cooking and brought a chocolate sponge cake for dessert but never even entertained the thought of cooking the gefilte fish, I wasn’t even going to eat it!

So there I was in the kitchen of the host family, finishing the first jar and opening the second when a second layer of scent enveloped me. I peered into the open jar and saw a short brown something. The smell reminded me of my grandfather — not surprising since he led the seders of my childhood. But this scent wasn’t a seder memory. It reminded me of the nights when he invited his cronies over for pinochle. I was swept away by a vivid memory of those sweet old men gathered around the table, laughing and smoking their cigars!

Oh boy, it was a cigar in the top of the jar! My mind flashed to an overworked man on the assembly line in the Manischewitz factory angrily putting out his cigar in the tub of fish. There was little appetite for jarred gefilte fish that night, but there was a new discussion on the additional workload of the laborers who made all the kosher for Passover food for us.

David D.:

I won’t do the story exactly, but a cousin’s friend’s father, Jim, was touring Israel. He was on a boat on the Sea of Galilee with other tourists including a Christian bible study group from the American Midwest.

A middle-aged women was discussing all the fishermen they saw and said to her friends, “I wonder what they catch here?”

Jim, ever helpful, volunteered, “Gefilte fish.”
“Oh”, she said, “I’ve heard of those. What do they use for bait?”
Jim explained, “Little pieces of cooked carrot.”
“Oh, how odd…”

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