Friday, March 22, 2013

In Pursuit of Gefilte Fish (Part One)

Where there is no vision, the people perish, said the prophet. Cooking for loved ones is one way in which I've felt, from time to time, as though I had got a glimpse of the celestial city from out here in the suburbs of everyday existence. Perhaps nowhere else in world cuisine is the link between that city and the suburbs so clearly, so overtly expressed as in Jewish cooking, to which I was introduced in my college dining hall---and no dish in the range of Jewish cooking is better, in my opinion, than gefilte fish made from scratch.

I have tasted homemade gefilte fish only once, a long time ago, at the house of a neighbor when the Diners and I lived in another town. It was an exquisitely delicious dish (I suspect that our hostess and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, took the time to chop what must have been over ten pounds of fish by hand) and I have yearned to taste it again ever since. The very thought of it makes my mouth water every time I see Passover displays in the stores. However, there is a problem, which is that although we have Jewish friends, the diplomatic nuances involved in wangling a Passover invitation elude me year after year. I can't find the words to say, can the Diners and I come to your Seder? That would be rude, and one must not be rude. So, year after year, I've stood with my nose pressed to the glass, an outsider looking in, wishing.

This year it occurred to me: why wait? I wouldn't do a Seder, but I could make gefilte fish. I wouldn't expect it to approach the heights of the dish prepared by my former neighbor and her mother, but on the other hand, Diner #1 and I own three Joan Nathan cookbooks packed full of recipes that have never let us down, including latkes that had us fighting over the last crunchy tidbits, chicken soup that both Diners swear by as a cure for colds, and hand-stretched strudel dough that you could read the Times through. Why not gefilte fish?

I had dipped my toe into the water. Huh. Not so bad. The next step, taking me a bit deeper in, was to crowd-source the logistics.

If I were to make gefilte fish next week, I posted on Facebook the week before Passover, when would be the best time to hit the fish market?

A woman friend who is a Rabbi replied, If it's next week, I'd say the rush is already over. This is the week to be fighting for your fish.

I thanked her and logged off, thinking, I'm doomed.

I sat with this feeling for a bit, then put on my coat and headed to the fish market a block from our house.

"I'm looking for pike, whitefish, and carp fillets, plus trimmings?" I said. "I'm, um, making gefilte fish this weekend?"

They looked at me.

"We don't have that."

I trudged back home. Now I was starting to worry. I considered calling a local friend to find out where she sourced her Passover fish, then discarded this idea as fraught with potential faux pas. What if she took this (correctly) as a hint that I wanted to be invited to her Seder? What if she used jarred?

And I was stupid enough to post about this on Facebook. Fantastic. I'll wind up making gefilte fish out of cod or something. Episcopal gefilte fish, the latest in cultural misappropriation. How pathetic would that look on the blog?

Breathe, Anna. Calm down. You're going to give yourself a heart attack.

Then it occurred to me that there was a well-known kosher supermarket in West Hartford, an hour from my house. Surely they would have fish. I went to their website, clicked on the link for the fish department, and read the words, ALL PASSOVER FISH ORDERS MUST BE PLACED BY 6 PM ON MARCH 15TH. Of course. It was March 20th. Much too late. Much too close to Passover.

I shook myself. What had gotten into me? What strange tale courtesy of Kafka had I fallen into? A friend once told me in jest that I had a Jewish soul; was this, then, how such things manifested themselves? What kind of comedian was in charge of this universe? Who was God, that He could make such a mistake, taking a shikse's body and implanting deep within it a desire to work with fish trimmings?

Almighty God, You delivered Your beloved people from bondage in Egypt, parting the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry land. You drowned the Egyptians with their horses, their chariots, and their chariot drivers. Get me out of here. If I am to be embarrassed in front of three hundred of my closest Facebook friends, not to mention the rest of the world, so be it. If I am never to taste hand-chopped anything again, so be it. Just get me out of here. I'm begging you. Either help me find a way to make gefilte fish or help me stop wanting to. Amen.

It was then that I realized something. Sitting around waiting for the phone to ring with God on the other end was not going to get me anywhere. That was shikse behavior, taught to me by other shikses, and let's face it, ladies, we are not known for our competence. If I wanted out of this quagmire I was going to have to find a way out myself. I would have to be my own Moses. I would find the words, however halting and insecure, to talk to the people at the fish counter at the kosher supermarket. I would get into the car and drive to West Hartford on a Friday morning with an insulated grocery bag in pursuit of pike, whitefish, and carp fillets, with trimmings.

(To be continued)

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen


  1. Wonderfully entertaining desperation! Isn't there a kosher deli nearby that might be able to help out?

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Deli offerings (smoked, brined, pickled) are one thing; fresh fish is quite another. I do have one more idea that I'll post about soon.