My love of gefilte fish started early. My grandmother would make it from scratch for Rosh Hashanah. She’d set it down on the table with the fish head at the top, pieces of gefilte fish garnished with cooked carrot coins and parsley followed.
Serving fish at holidays is not merely a culinary tradition, but rather it’s a ritual of symbolic significance. Throughout the Talmud, fish are a symbol of fertility, prosperity and abundance. In Genesis, Hashem speaks to a fish before speaking to any other living creature:
“And God blessed them saying: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas…”
The Rosh Hashanah tradition also has its origins in the Torah: “God shall place you as a head and not as a tail” (Deuteronomy). This metaphor guides us to become leaders, not followers. In other words, the head of the fish reminds us to connect to our highest, authentic selves as we enter the year — head-first.
Maybe you grew up in a family where a platter of fish heads was served at your High Holiday table, one for each person; or maybe your family’s tradition was to serve chraime; or the kind of gefilte fish that comes pre-made in a jar or frozen in a thick tube, simmered in water, and later sliced and served. Maybe, like me, you fell in love with updated gefilte fish recipes, like the one from “The Gefilte Manifesto,” by Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz. Served with a fierce beet horseradish (aka chrain), my intergenerational Ashkenazi taste buds are always satisfied by gefilte.
But as any avid host knows, not everyone shares a love for ground fish patties — whether they come out of a jar of mysterious jelly or are painstakingly homemade. As I began hosting High Holiday meals, it became our custom to invite a large group of friends and family, and to include anyone that needs a place to go. Often, we gather outdoors in the warmth of the last days of summer, and my sprawling picnic table fills up with guests from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities. While it’s rarely possible to satisfy each and every person’s unique dietary preferences, I strive to make the meal as enjoyable as possible for all who attend, and I also uphold the tradition of serving fish. In my experience, the appreciation of lox and smoked fish has consistently outweighed the love for traditional gefilte fish. One year it occurred to me, ‘Why not honor the tradition of serving fish with a crowd-pleaser?’
I was born and now reside in the Pacific Northwest. Here, smoked and cured fish come in ample forms. You can find delicately flavored Nova cold-smoked lox, but you’ll more readily find thick peppercorn-crusted pieces of hot-smoked salmon, maple-kissed glossy salmon candy and buttery, tender smoked West Coast sablefish.
When I host, I like to pick out three or four varieties of cured fish. I head to the Portland farmers’ market where I stop by The Smokery’s fish stand, run by Michael Jacobs, a kind-eyed Irish Jewish immigrant. Michael’s fish comes in more varieties than I could dream of: classic, peppered, pastrami, maple, Old Irish and more. Whatever I choose, I serve the fish as the first course, alongside fresh accompaniments that can hold up to the forthright smokiness. Sometimes I make a bed of matchstick-cut fennel, apple and celery slaw; other times, the fish is surrounded by thinly sliced cucumbers, lemon wedges and tufts of dill fronds. My goal is aways to balance out the unmistakable waft of the ocean mixed with burnt wood with the brightness of a crunchy vegetable, a tart currant, a tangy cornichon or a squeeze of citrus. I make vegetarians a separate plate of vegetables or salad so that they can easily join in.
The other reason I serve smoked fish at Rosh Hashanah is perhaps obvious: It’s easy. As Ina Garten taught me long ago, “You know, store-bought is just fine.” Meals hosted with ease and calm tend to inspire a similar environment, and the more I host, the more I value finding a balance between manageable and ambitious. My Rosh Hashanah dinners might have an elaborate main dish or a stunning homemade dessert, but forever the first course will be simple and delightful: A platter of smoked fish expertly prepared by someone else.
As Maya Angelou famously said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Smoked fish is my feel-good dish, and what better way to start the new year?