Gefilte Fish in America

A history of the Jewish fish product.

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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."

European Origins

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.

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Tamara Mann

Tamara Mann is a Ph.D. Candidate in American History at Columbia University and a freelance writer.