Gefilte fish, a pescatarian’s meatloaf of ground fish, onions, starch, and eggs, is both an object of culinary delight and a linchpin of Jewish shtick. Born in Europe out of religious obligation, poverty, and ingenuity, gefilte fish survived in America due to bottling technology, innovative advertising, and an American Jewish desire to experience faith through the large intestine.
Gefilte fish is most associated with the Sabbath meal, as eating fish on Shabbat has been a Jewish custom since the talmudic period. Fish, the ancient sages trumpeted, was an aphrodisiac. They believed the intoxicating odor on the Sabbath table would encourage couples to “be fruitful and multiply“–which in Jewish tradition is encouraged on Friday night. The Hebrew word for fish, dag, also corresponds to the numerical value seven, which reflects God’s commandment, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord.”
Gefilte fish, at its inception, was a savvy solution to both a financial and a halakhic (Jewish legal) dilemma. Impoverished Jewish women in Eastern and Central Europe could feed their families with a single serving of the cheapest kosher aquatic, and they could eat the fish without violating the talmudic prohibition against removing bones on the Sabbath.
Jewish women carefully skinned the fish and ground the flesh and bones with inexpensive ingredients such as onions, eggs, and bread before stuffing the concoction back into the skin for baking (gefilte is Yiddish for “stuffed”). Soon Jewish families stopped stuffing altogether and simply formed the mixture into balls for steaming or boiling.
Enshrined as a Jewish staple by the 19th century, gefilte fish attained local flavors in Russia, Germany, Poland, France, and Lithuania. Poland became famous for its sweet sugary balls, while Lithuanians preferred their patties with pepper and horseradish.
A Recipe From Back Home
When Jews arrived in America, they brought their gefilte recipes with them. Jewish immigrant women spent full days shopping, preparing, and arguing over the right amount of salt for their odiferous spheres.
In the Jewish Holiday Cookbook, Joan Nathan recounts her mother-in-law’s laborious gefilte fish recipe. First, Peshka Gordon would load a giant kettle with celery, onions, carrots, bones, fish heads, salt, pepper, and sugar for the stock. Then, in a wooden bowl, she would hand grind a bouquet of carp, whitefish, yellow pike, onions, eggs, sugar, salt, matzo meal, and pepper. When the paste congealed to the appropriate consistency, she would dip her hands into the mixture, form the patties, and “carefully slide each into the simmering stock” for two hours. Each patty would be served with some chilled gelatinous stock, horseradish, “and of course the carrots.”
In Europe, time meant love. In America, time meant money. And why should immigrant families, eager to work, spend entire days preparing food they could buy on the street for the same price?
The advent of chop suey houses, delis, canned meals, and ethnic food stands disrupted traditional Jewish food practices and upended the tight-knit kosher trade. Terrified small business owners and religious authorities joined forces with a new breed of observant advertising mavens to inspire American manufacturers to produce and market kosher products. Their innovations would catapult gefilte fish to American Jewish fame and ensure its survival as an edible and as a symbol of American Judaism.
Bringing Gefilte to the Mainstream
The modern kosher food industry began when two advertising ingénues, Joshua C. Epstein and Joseph Jacobs, convinced H.J. Heinz and Maxwell House Coffee that the kosher market could yield significant profits. By agreeing to kosher inspections, advertising in the Yiddish press, and designing innovative ad products like the famed Maxwell House Haggadah, American food companies found their way into the homes of upwardly mobile urban and, later, suburban Jews. By the end of the 1950s, the kosher industry had grown tenfold from 1945, with more than 1,800 available kosher products.
Authenticity and nostalgia, post-war businesses gleefully discovered, could be bottled, packaged, and sold. And while numerous foods, such as cholent, kishka, and chopped liver recalled the steamy kitchens of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, only one food could be easily mass produced and slapped on the table without reheating: gefilte fish.
Gefilte fish became the quintessential Jewish holiday item, through deliberate mass marketing campaigns that convinced Jewish families that the industrially designed congealed fish balls were replicas of their grandmothers’ recipes. “Make Passover Memorable!,” Mother’s Old-Fashioned Gefilte Fish declared. “Time, work and money-saving. Ready-to-serve, in vacuum-packed glass jars with easy-open Steriseal caps.”
By the 1950s, gefilte fish had become “the Jewish national dish,” according to The Jewish Home Beautiful, a popular book published by The Women?s League of the United Synagogue of America. Served at temple dinners, philanthropic fundraisers, and life cycle events from bar mitzvahs to weddings, gefilte fish migrated from a holiday staple to a Jewish cultural icon. On October 20, 1954, the Jewish community proudly celebrated the 300th anniversary of its arrival in America by serving gefilte fish to the guest of honor at a New York celebration, President Dwight Eisenhower.
For the kosher-style Jew, gefilte fish morphed from a culinary staple into a humorous sign of ethnic identity. Beloved and exploited by Catskill comedians, gefilte fish, along with neurotic Jewish mothers, became a lasting American trope.
As one popular routine cracks:
Q: What kind of cigarettes do Jewish mothers smoke?
What Does the Future Hold?
By the 21st century, two distinct kinds of gefilte fish survived: the edible and the iconic. No longer at war with chop suey and the like, gefilte fish encountered a new set of threats. The resurgent kosher food industry, with an unlimited supply of modern products, diminished the need and desire for gefilte fish. In addition, a younger generation, raised on bottled blobs of fish and a proclivity for irony, abandoned the food item for kitschy t-shirts with labels like, “Gefilte Fish: The Hot Dog of the Sea,” and ditties like “The Gefilte Fish Song” that rib the habits of American Jews and its love affair with gefilte.
Can gefilte fish survive the double-edged sword of culinary variety and irony? “Of course,” claims Zachary Schenker of the New York kosher grocery Supersol. “It’s gefilte fish. It is as Jewish as chicken soup.” Food historians are less convinced. While Joan Nathan describes the resurgence in gefilte fish-making by Russian Jewish immigrants, she also laments the broad generational divide and the fact that so many Sephardic Jews “hate gefilte fish. Absolutely hate it.”
In an age of prosperity, irony, and variety, gefilte fish exists in a depleted form. But as Zachary Schenker recalls, “The best part about gefilte fish, as with all these heimish foods is that it comes from garbage? We mixed it all together and boom! All of a sudden you had beautiful wonderful gefilte fish.”
In its 4000-year-old history, the Jewish people have seen prosperity and poverty. Grasping the crumbs, however malodorous, of a culinary tradition equipped to handle both, might not be such a bad idea.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.