It’s one of those snapshot memories, a stop-motion image from childhood that I sometimes take out this time of year. In it, several women are standing around a white Formica dining room table. Newspaper covers every inch of the table and an old hand-cranked fish grinder sits on one edge. The air is filled with chatter … chatter and an odor. An awful odor. A god-awful smell that danced up from that rickety old machine and over to my poor five-year-old nose. It’s my only recollection of the Great Kanter Family Gefitle Fish Fiasco — the only bit of memory I still can conjure up from horribly smelly time my mother and her friends tried to make gefilte fish from scratch in my family’s Queens apartment.
The story goes that my mother, who hates to cook and who proudly wears the label of bad cook, decided to take a stab at making from-scratch gefilte fish for the Jewish holidays. It went all kinds of wrong. The cause of death always cited in this story is that the group used the wrong kind of fish. Judging from the smell, that was not the only thing wrong with the fish. That recipe fail was enough to sour me on the popular Ashkenazi holiday appetizer for a long time to come.
Ten years later, my mother unknowingly stumbled up a way to finally serve good homemade gefilte fish. She purchased it. Not the terrible-looking jarred stuff, but actual fresh sweet gefilte fish complete with the spirit of the Old Country.
In Queens at the time, small kosher prepared food markets dotted many neighborhoods including one near my own. The kitchens often were staffed with women who recently had emigrated from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Queens of then and now was a melting pot of people and their cuisines. The gefilte fish makers were just one of many examples of this.
For the holidays, my mother started ordering loaves of sweet gefilte fish made by the women who worked in these kitchens along with their less inspired premade matzo balls, chicken soup, roast chicken, and the occasional tough piece of brisket. One particular shop made it better and a tad sweeter than the other, so it had our regular business. The loaves wrapped in white butcher paper were my first exposure to the intention of the dish as something to be savored. It also let me see that gefitle fish could be delicious — to say nothing of odor-free.
I’m not the only one discovering that Yiddish stuffed fish deserves a second look. Gefilte fish is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, thanks in part to people like Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz. The pair, founders of the Brooklyn-based Gefilteria, makes a fresh modern take on the old standby that isn’t smelly, but instead slightly sweet, oniony and fresh-tasting. Gefilteria is made in small batches with Great Lakes whitefish and pike, and sushi-grade Pacific salmon.
Alpern and Yoskowitz are helping Jews reclaim Ashkenazi cooking with their gefilte fish recipes and their new book, The Gefilte Manifesto: New World Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods.
Despite my mother’s failed attempt all those years ago, Alpern assures first time gefitle fish makers that it is not that hard. “A food processor makes all the difference,” she says. “Start with fresh filets of the highest quality fish and you can’t go wrong. When baking gefilte fish in our terrine option, the whole process will be more manageable.”
Yoskowitz agrees. “My grandmother always talked about how laborious it is, but really, it’s not that time consuming, especially if you bake it and if you buy fresh filets from the fishmonger,” he says. “If you’re starting with a carp in the bathtub, then it’s a different story.”
Thousands will eat Gefilteria for this year’s Rosh Hashanah. While I am not sure this is the year I tackle the dish in my kitchen, I do think I am almost ready to push past the bad smell that lingers from my childhood memories. And I’m certainly happy to eat Gefilteria’s fish.