No Joke: Gefilte Fish That's Not Gooish

Finalists battle in Heeb magazine's 2008 gefilte fish wrestling contest.
Finalists battle in Heeb magazine's 2008 gefilte fish wrestling contest. (Heeb Magazine - )
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By Tamara Mann
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

For lots of Jews under 30, gefilte fish can be summed up thusly: funny, sure. Edible, not so much.

We have taunted it with songs, jokes and kitschy T-shirts that sport images of Manischewitz jars and slogans such as "Gefilte Fish: The Other White Meat." We enjoy YouTube clips of gefilte fish wrestling promoted by the satirical Heeb magazine.

"It didn't seem fair to us that Jell-O and whipped cream always get all the fun," says contributing editor Oliver Noble. "Gefilte fish is sexy, too." (The magazine came up with four cheeky Olympic events in 2008 that ran concurrent with the Summer Games in Beijing, one of which was the wrestling. Bouts were held in an inflatable kiddie pool filled with a few cases of fish balls and goo. Readers vied to compete; the winner got a lifetime supply of Gold's mustard. The loser ended up facedown in, well, you know.)

That we do not partake is our loss, we're told each year at family seders, when the story of Exodus is retold by reading the Haggadah. But the transmogrification of gefilte fish is hardly our fault. We only know from store-bought jars, whose contents were plopped on a piece of lettuce with horseradish as a first course. Few of us associate the ancient delicacy with the smells of our grandmothers' Lower East Side kitchens or the inventive savvy of ancestors who knew how to stretch a food dollar.

In Central and Eastern Europe hundreds of years ago, the dish solved two problems: Jewish women could use but a single carp to feed their families on the Sabbath and avoid the Talmudic prohibition against removing bones from their food on that holy day of the week. By removing the fish innards and grinding the bones with easy-to-find ingredients such as onions, matzoh and eggs before stuffing the mixture back into the fish skin, the cooks created a dish that obeyed and enhanced Jewish holidays.

Families that could not afford a whole fish eventually reworked the original "stuffed" (gefilte, in Yiddish) recipe by serving the mixture as patties or balls. Gefilte fish, as culinary historians have noted, is the kosher equivalent of haggis or scrapple.

As an added inducement, its pungent aroma was supposed to inspire couples to engage in ecstatic copulation, fulfilling the commandment to make love on the Sabbath.

Fish is a religious symbol of fertility, so that part has understandable appeal, at least in theory. (Just for grins, I once tried to cook gefilte fish and felt compelled to boil cinnamon at the same time to preempt the displeasure of my husband, who is not a gefilte fish fan.)

The truth is, we are not exactly turned on by what's in manufactured, mainstream gefilte fish and its goo. Originally the latter was fish broth made gelatinous from long-simmered fish heads and bones. By World War II, American Jews were spared the long processes and presented with ready-to-serve gefilte fish, vacuum-packed in glass jars and cans.

But the label on a modern gefilte fish jar tells a story: carrageenan, locust bean gum, potassium chloride, dipotassium phosphate, natural flavor, sodium hexametaphosphate and sodium tripolyphosphate.

Over the past decade, kosher epicureans have attempted to reengineer gefilte fish for our sushi-loving, diet-conscious and allergic palates: Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish With Lemon-Horseradish Sauce. Springtime Green Salad With Gefilte Fish Balls, Sugar Snap Peas and Asparagus. Even a "Top Chef" take from Season 3 winner Hung Huynh that called for cilantro, kaffir lime leaves and tamarind sauce.


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