What to Make of Gefilte Fish

Eat This.

Not That.

The first 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 my nephew, D, in Chicago calls. He’s hosting 18 for dinner on Rosh Hashanah and wants the recipe for gefilte fish. . . . just like my 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 dinner at D’s. In good guest mode, she asks D what to bring, and instead of honey cake or kugel, 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 mom-in-law, I “kvell” 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 Tract, 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 few higher authorities:

Shana Tova


  1. OMG. Literally. When Heaven decided what bunch to throw me in with, It mercifully put me in the Methodist pot. (Luck.)

    If I had to do the beautiful, graceful, intuitive dance of the The Fish, I would hide in the basement until the holiday passed over.

    To be a Methodist you only have to have a recipe for Texas Dump Cake or some such. We are the people of the potluck. It's easy. It's almost anonymous.

    Good luck to J. I mean that from my heart. She is lucky to be invited to make a dish that is so traditional, such a ritual, so holy with shared love and fussing over. Some pressure, I'm sure. But so much joy.

    I wish the blessings of the Methodist God -- Whom I believe is also your God -- just with easier food requirements -- on one and all!

  2. Oh Annie, I think you misunderstand. We might complain about all the preparations for the holidays, but this is a labor of love. My most vivid memories of spending the holidays with my family are the wonderful smells of food cooking in the kitchen, first in my grandmother's apartment in Brooklyn, where I learned the "recipes", then at home with my parents and siblings, and finally in my own home with our children, and now grandchild(ren!). I'm "J"'s mother, and it makes me so proud to know that she has taken up the mantle of preparing holidays for her future husband and his family!

    This is how all the generations connect, with love, laughter, traditions. There's no stronger tradition than preparing holiday food with your children. Yes, there's a lot of work involved, but what better task is there than giving your family wonderful memories of time spent together? The proof is in the actions of my daughter, and also those of my son and daughter-in-law, who are using family recipes as we speak to make another joyful memory for my 4 year-old grandson, and for his soon-to-be-born sibling.

    I wouldn't give this up for all the convenience foods in Whole Foods! Sometimes easy isn't all it's cracked up to be :)

  3. Vivian, thanks for the memories. Your musings remind me of Nana's scrumptous matzoh ball soup, and the tradition of her making horseradish on our screened-in back porch. For some reason, the making of the horseradish was not appropriate for Nana's hi-rise apartment. As I recall, as a young boy, I was too chicken to try the horseradish and have the steam come out my ears (a la green mustard).

  4. Ann, Carin, Lanny We've got a conversation going here-- apologies for the slow response. I am currently out of town, "Up North" as we say in MI-- in Petoskey. A "working holiday" for M. Weather is spectacular, we spent the day on bikes. Let me respond to each of you in a little more detail . . . tomorrow.
    Love to you all

  5. And J did it! And did it well! She conquered The Fish, the recipe, the tradition. She appropriately obsessed, qualified, warned about the outcome, but it was delicious. Just like mamma's. Just like V's. And D's Rosh Hashana dinner was complete...with family, friends and The Fish. And that's not to mention Aunt Marianne's noodle kugel (not my Aunt Marianne), 10 quarts of chicken noodle soup compliments of D's brother, 9 grilled cornish hens, 7 pounds of completely dried out overcooked brisket pitched and replaced by another 6 pounds cooked to perfection, 5 bottles of wine, 4 pounds of chopped liver, 3 challah breads, 2 candle sticks, and a partidge in a pear tree...

  6. Oy, gefilte. Never was there a Finer Fish to create Such a Fuss. Our commentary is starting to remind me of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." (Judi Barret_Simon & Schuster, 1978 for your reference)

    On second thought, perhaps Zachary,our resident playwright in the family, might start a budding career with a flight of fantasy on the "Fish Dialogues," portraits of neuroses at the Jewish holiday table.

    D - your dinner sounds like it was resplendent. I regret that we were not there to share it with you. But vicariously, I've enjoyed every bite.

    Thanks to all who stopped by to blog.

    So what are we doing Yom Kippur, to break the fast?

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. My father was the one who sat outside on the front steps grating the horseradish--the fresh air helped vent the fumes. I now perform this labor of love, but using a cuisinart, and being very careful to hold my breath when I take off the lid! J has said that next year she'll make the homemade version to go along with her now expert version of "The Fish"!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts