One of my hobbies is going to grocery stores, particularly specialty stores. The kosher supermarket in West Hartford was a place I'd been wanting to visit for some time. I was hopeful that they might have what I was looking for: pike, whitefish, and carp. Maybe (be still, my heart) I would even be able to choose a live fish. This was not just a fantasy left over from girlhood days spent reading the All-of-a-Kind Family books; I had often bought live fish at Super H Mart, the Korean supermarket chain, when we lived in suburban Chicago.
I found the market without difficulty; the enormous parking lot was almost full. Inside, the store smelled agreeably of toasted onion. The customers were mainly women of my age and older. There was a sense of camaraderie about the place that struck me as unusual for New England. Something else struck me, too: although both the shoppers and store employees were racing the clock on this Friday afternoon three days before Passover, they were careful to acknowledge each other with smiles and greetings and not to bump into each other as they swerved and reached and negotiated their carts and baskets and dollies through the aisles. Their body language said: food is important, but people are more so. It all reminded me vaguely of some other setting, somewhere I had been before, but I couldn't place it.
There was a fine selection of smoked fish, but I saw no sign of fresh other than a few packages of trout. A manager asked me if I needed help. I told him I was making gefilte fish for the next day. He listened. He summoned the fish lady. I asked: did they by any chance have fresh pike, whitefish, or carp?
The fish lady shook her head kindly, but firmly. "You have to special-order that," she said. I thanked her and wandered away, speechless.
Back home, I unpacked my consolation prizes: whitefish salad, bagels, mandelbrot, and long, jam-covered things called railroad-tracks cookies, which looked as if they would be perfect sliced up alongside a cup of espresso. It was then that I realized what the kosher supermarket had reminded me of: shopping in Italy. Food for thought.
Checking email, I saw that the Facebook friend and Rabbi had sent me a message saying that people in the Pacific Northwest used wild-caught salmon to make gefilte fish and that this was, in her experience, tastier than the traditional whitefish. With this idea under my belt and with one other place in mind that I wanted to check, I called Diner #1, who was preparing that night's dinner, to see if he needed anything.
"Pick up a big bag of shrimp, will you?" he said.
Thus I headed off to the Store Which Must Not Be Named.
The Store Which Must Not Be Named goes by several other names, of course. Some people, including Diner #1, call it Whole Paycheck; others call it What the Foods. Many look down on it, calling it pretentious, overpriced, and insufficiently "green." Whatever your opinion of it, the very mention of it provokes such vehement reactions from most people that I hesitate before mentioning that I shop there, lest I be called a food snob, not enough of a food snob, or some horrid amalgam of the two.
When I walked up to the fish counter, my jaw dropped. In the iced display there lay, among the snapper and mackerel, two whole fresh whitefish. I perked up. Maybe this idea was going to take off after all.
"May I help you?" said the fish guy. I asked him to fillet one of the whitefish, reserving the trimmings. I considered taking the other one as well, but then a warning bell went off in my head; I remembered reading somewhere that whitefish on its own is much too soft and delicate for gefilte fish. It has to be mixed with a firmer fish. The Rabbi had mentioned salmon; I bought some.
Removing the skin in my own kitchen proved a challenge, since Diner #1, our in-house fish cutting expert, was off at work. When I was done, the fillets looked as if they had been attacked by some vicious beast who had been scared off in mid-meal. Never mind. I started the stock with the skin and other trimmings, then tossed bits of fish into the food processor (finding the idea of hand-chopping at this point unspeakably exhausting). I added what seemed even to me, a former Russian major, an outrageous amount of onion, but Joan Nathan's and Faye Levy's cookbooks, splayed over the counter, indicated that this was key. Carrot. Salt and pepper. Okay, a lot of salt and pepper. No parsnip in the house. Can't add parsnip. How much matzo meal? Joan Nathan said a cup for five pounds of fish; Faye Levy said two tablespoons for three pounds. I tossed in a handful. No recipe mentioned dill, but I had some in the fridge, so I added it too. I strained broth, mixed the ground fish with its seasonings, shaped patties, poached them, gently removed them to a platter, and chilled them and the broth. Next stop, Saturday dinner.
"It's ready!" I yelled. "Get the camera!"
I had prepared a salad of cucumber and red onion in vinegar and plated the fish with it in the kitchen. I had added a dab of wasabi and even a bit of pickled ginger for myself, leaving the Diners to choose whether or not they wanted to go down that path. I called them to the table. Diner #1 appeared with his usual courteous promptness; Diner #2, who had heard there was cold fish for dinner, had to be ordered.
I spread wasabi on my first bite, popped it into my mouth, and snuck a look at Diner #1, whose face was unreadable. Diner #2 was not eating.
"Don't eat it just by itself," I advised. "You have to have horseradish." Diner #1, taking another swig of his drink, reached for the wasabi and ate in silence.
I cut another piece, spread horseradish on it, raised it to my lips, and paused. I put down my fork.
"What is it?" said Diner #1.
"I can't," I said.
"I can't eat it," I said. "It tastes like---cat food."
All three of us lost it. Diner #1 dropped his fork with a clatter and pushed his plate away.
"Cat food?" Diner #2 shouted.
"You mean it smells like cat food, " Diner #1 corrected. "I sincerely hope that you have never, in fact, eaten cat food."
"It tastes terrible!" I wailed. "It doesn't taste at all like I remembered! How could this have happened? I went to so much trouble!"
"Maybe it's like that thing in Europe, where all that meat turned out to be horse meat?" Diner #2 offered. "Except here in America, all the fish is actually cat food. Do I have to eat this, or can I go get something else?"
"Go get whatever the hell you want, kid," I said. He pulled a package of Hebrew National hot dogs out of the fridge.
"This is going to go down in family legend," said Diner #1. "This is going to be one of the great stories. I can hear it now. For years we're going to be saying, remember the time when you tried to make gefilte fish?"
What he doesn't understand is that this is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. That while this particular dinner may have failed, the desire to work with fish trimmings remains. That there are a lot more adventures to come. That I am growing stronger, ever stronger, and from strength to strength. That I'm holding myself to a higher standard. That I know who I am and what God expects me to do. That I am an eternal optimist, or a realist because I believe in miracles, or some wonderfully and fearfully made amalgam of the two. This year, a culinary disaster. This year, homemade cat food. Next year, real gefilte fish. Next year, in the Holy Land.
Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen