Gefilte Fish in America

A history of the Jewish fish product.

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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?
A: Gefiltered.

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Tamara Mann

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