Once scorned at the seder, gefilte fish enjoys a revival

In days of yore, a typical Jewish person might have argued that the biggest debate concerning gefilte fish is whether to eat it with pink horseradish or white.

A self-declaring food connoisseur might have said gefilte fish must only be eaten with white horseradish; another would have said pink, and then a third would have said neither — horseradish ruins the palate for gefilte fish.

However, this sort of debate is a bit outdated in the modern Jewish world. Now the big question is whether gefilte fish will ever become a Pesach standard again, as some households now even serve salmon as a more popular alternative cold fish come Passover time.

In “The World of Jewish Cooking,” Gil Marks writes that gefilte fish originated in Germany around the 14th century as a way to get around borer, the prohibition of work on the Sabbath which includes the removal of the inedible part of food from the edible part. Because the bones are fully removed from the gefilte fish during its preparation, there is no need to remove the bones while eating on Shabbat.

But over the years, gefilte fish has lost some of its luster.

When asked about the influence of Jewish food in America in a recent interview on Nextbook.org, a “gateway to Jewish literature, culture & ideas,” Jewish food maven Joan Nathan said that gefilte fish will never have the same status as say, matzah ball soup.

“Challah French toast I found in Santa Fe. You see hamantaschen in stores a lot … lox and bagels, of course, and even kugel — noodle kugel, casseroles — have become very popular,” Nathan said. “But gefilte fish will never go mainstream. Just forget that, it’s just not going to.”

“It’s not a huge seller,” agrees Justin Hafen, restaurateur and co-owner of such San Francisco favorites as Home, Sydney’s, and most recently, California Street Delicatessen & Café, the newest gourmet incarnation at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “Gefilte fish doesn’t appeal to the larger spectrum.”

So, how can we erase this stigma and give gefilte fish a little credit, a little more pizzazz in our minds? How can we make it as hip as a “Yo semite” shirt, or Heeb Magazine?

In her book “Jewish Cooking in America,” Nathan admits that gefilte fish is on the rise with the younger generations — and not just in a jar or a can.

In many instances, Nathan writes, the children of Jewish immigrants to America scorned gefilte fish, and Jewish traditions in general, in a rush to assimilate. It is the third generation that insists on the traditional recipes.

This particular generation, Gen X if you will, persistently have exhibited the need to find their Jewish roots, turning in recent years to more traditional methods of davening, observing Shabbat, and perhaps even taking the time to bone, skin, filet and chop their fish.

The process of making gefilte fish can be painstaking. Originally, Marks writes, the flesh was removed from the fish, chopped, seasoned and stuffed back into the skin, then the fish was sewn up and baked.

But for those who don’t have the time to make their own gefilte fish, David’s Delicatessen in San Francisco should be a breath of fresh air to a generation that craves authenticity and history.

Walking into David’s, customers are transported back into time, or at least into an authentic New York deli of today with its old-fashioned counters and the variety of cold quality fish, pastrami sandwiches and hot dishes such as stuffed cabbage and split pea soup with bits of kosher franks.

David Apfelbaum, the deli’s founder and owner since 1952, said that his gefilte fish has not changed much over the years. It is the same as he and his wife made in Poland years ago, with the exception that it is now made without stuffing it back into the skin, only because it makes the process even longer and more expensive.

Apfelbaum does not believe that gefilte fish is on its way out; he noted that many people come into his restaurant around holiday time to buy gefilte fish — in bulk. Around the holidays, he sells thousands of pieces of gefilte fish, some people coming in to buy 60-90 pieces at a time.

“They want gefilte fish, good gefilte fish, and they come here,” Apfelbaum said. “Even gentiles, they love it.”

He makes his gefilte fish out of whitefish, carp and pike, ordering it each month from New York, where the fish is raised in clean waters, unlike our “muddy California waters.” Apfelbaum spends over $300 on the freight of one shipment alone.

Apfelbaum scoffs at anyone who does not like gefilte fish, or who says that gefilte fish is disgusting or wrong.

“To me, a Jew that doesn’t like gefilte fish is a Jew I don’t understand,” Apfelbaum said. He especially does not understand someone who goes out and buys a jar of pre-made gefilte fish. “It’s their bad luck,” Apfelbaum claims. “You know what American Jews think? They think jars (of gefilte fish) are God’s gift to humanity.”

However, the fine art of making real gefilte fish, and the thought of gefilte fish in general, might still have a long way into the hearts of many Gen Xers, many of whom are befuddled by the fish’s texture and looks.

“What’s up with the gel?” asked James Dubey. “I never know whether to scrape it off or scoop it on. What is that stuff?”

When asked why he does not think gefilte fish has the same stimulus as years gone by, Hafen responded, “it’s a funny name … it doesn’t sound very appetizing.”

Maybe all gefilte fish really needs is a clever PR spin — or at least a new name.

Joan Nathan’s Classic Gefilte Fish | Yields about 26 patties

7 to 7 1⁄2 lbs. whole carp, whitefish and pike, filleted and ground
3 tsp. salt or to taste
3 onions, peeled
4 medium carrots, peeled
2 Tbs. sugar or to taste
1 small parsnip, chopped
4 large eggs
freshly ground pepper to taste
1⁄2 cup cold water
1⁄3 cup matzah meal
Reserve bones, skin, and fish heads and place in a wide, very large saucepan with a cover. Add water until it covers ingredients and 2 tsp. of the salt; bring to a boil. Remove the foam that accumulates.
Slice 1 onion in rounds and add along with 3 of the carrots. Add the sugar and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes while the fish mixture is being prepared.
Place the ground fish in a bowl. In a food processor or by hand, finely chop the remaining onions, the remaining carrot and the parsnip and add to fish.
Add the eggs, the remaining teaspoon of salt, pepper and cold water; mix thoroughly. Stir in enough matzah meal to make a light, soft mixture that will hold its shape. Wet your hands with cold water and, scooping up about 1/4 cup of fish, form the mixture into oval shapes about 3 inches long.
Remove from the saucepan the onions, skins, head and bones and return the stock to a simmer. Gently place the fish patties in the simmering fish stock. Cover loosely and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste the liquid while the fish is cooking and add seasoning to taste. Shake the pot periodically so the fish patties won’t stick. When gefilte fish is cooked, remove from the water and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the gefilte fish and arrange on a platter. Strain some of the stock over the fish.
Slice the cooked carrots into rounds cut on a diagonal about 1/4 inch thick. Place a carrot round on top of each gefilte fish patty. Chill until ready to serve. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and serve with horseradish.