BEFORE THERE WERE hairdressers and vacuum packaging, there were babushkas and homemade gefilte fish. Not one fish but a combination of several, this traditional Jewish mixture of ground carp, pike and whitefish has come a long way--from the banks of Eastern Europe's North Sea to the bathtubs of Depression immigrants and finally, shortly after World War II, to the jars of New Jersey canning plants.

Packaged gefilte fish is an American invention, a 20th-century timesaver. No longer do Jewish balabustas have to labor over the day-long process of boning, chopping and grinding fish. And besides, the shelf life of jellied jarred gefilte fish is 4 to 5 years, says Benjamin Checkanow, vice president of Mother's in Newark, N.J. "When my mother used to make it, it lasted a week."

In giving up the work, though, freshness and flavor are sacrificed. No longer going from the guillotine to the grinder, today's gefilte fish have become mere vehicles for horseradish, bland to the tastes of those who remember--or still make--homemade. But unlike kugel and kishka, which many consider dietitic Russian roulette, reformed gefilte fish is benign. "It's low calorie," said a spokesman from Mother's. If grandma only knew.

The invention of gefilte fish all started from a dilemma. Eastern European Jews traditionally ate fish on the Sabbath. But according to Orthodox law, no work is permitted on the Sabbath. Eating fish with bones was considered work. Gefilte fish--a boneless fish mixture--fit the religious bill.

Gefilte, a Yiddish word, means "stuffed"--the traditional way of making the fish. Like the procedure for making stuffed baked potatoes, the stuffing of the fish involved filling the skin (with head and tail intact) after gutting, boning and chopping the flesh. According to Patti Shosteck, author of "A Lexicon of Jewish Cooking," the flesh was then mixed with spices and flour (on Passover, matzo meal), and stuffed back into the fish.

Now it is a totally automated process, with electric grinders, huge copper vats, pressure cookers and monosodium glutamate. To cater to the American Jewish melting pot and the more-is-better American marketing technique, gefilte fish come in cans or in jars; in jelly, in broth, in balls. Most manufacturers make a "regular gefilte fish"--a mixture of carp, mullet, whitefish and pike to which they add water, egg whites, salt, pepper, sometimes sugar, flavorings, spices, a filler of matzo meal and frequently msg. Then there's the sweet version (thought to be the Polish tradition) in which sugar, or more sugar, is added to the ingredients.

Other variations include only whitefish and pike, or all whitefish. Manischewitz and Mrs. Adler's make a saltless gefilte fish. And Mother's sells a hickory-smoked gefilte fish made with "natural hickory smoke and other flavorings."

Even though we might wish for neighborhood fishmongers who live above their shops, most of us are resigned to convenience and modernity. This year, then, we added another question to Passover's traditional four: What is the best jarred gefilte fish? Our group of veteran seder-goers concluded the following:

* The range of tastes between brands and types is narrow.

* Tasters liked the whitefish/pike mixtures more often than the "regular" four-fish mix. Some of the "regulars" were perceived as having an "off-taste."

* The blandness of the fish was often overpowered by either sugar or salt. Comments such as "too sweet" or "too salty" were common.

* While tasters noted the sweetness in the gefilte fish labeled "sweet," some of the "regular" blends were recognized for their sweetness as well. So "regular" does not necessarily indicate lack of sweetness.

* Although the 20-sample tasting was done blind, when it came down to it, tasters took with them the prejudices they grew up with from their own seder tables.

Here is how the brands stacked up: Mother's--The mensch of the gefilte fish community, this was undoubtedly the favorite, garnering 1st (Pike and Whitefish), 2nd (All Whitefish), 9th (Old Fashioned) and tied for 14th (Old World Sweet) places. As a group, it was consistently rated as high in "fish taste." (For some, this quality seemed to be negative, however.) The pike/whitefish and all whitefish varieties are markedly whiter and, as some tasters said, "more attractive" than the other contenders; texturally, Mother's tends to be smoother. Old World Sweet was frequently noted as being "too sweet."

Rokeach--Rokeach gefilte fish, a subsidiary of Mother's, was tasted in two types--the canned regular and Old Vienna Sweet. Both fish fared well, placing 4th and tying for 7th. Like Mother's, they were noted for their "fishy" taste. Almost all the tasters, however, found the Old Vienna too sweet.

Manischewitz--A good basic fish, the four types of Manischewitz we tried placed in the middle of the tasting. "Salty" was a consistent comment. Placing fifth, the whitefish/pike mix tasters found salty and similar to matzo balls in appearance. Sweet whitefish/pike (6th place) got grades anywhere from "sweet but good," to "fake taste" and "mealy." Manischewitz Regular (11th) was noted for its taste similarity to tunafish, its saltiness and blandness; the regular sweet (13th place) was also noted for its matzo-ball appearance and sweetness.

Horowitz-Margareten--This was the only brand in which tasters preferred the regular mix to the whitefish/pike. Both types (tying both for 7th and 14th) were thought to be too sweet and mealy.

Mrs. Adler's--If Mrs. Adler, pictured so happily on her jars of gefilte fish, only knew that this group of tasters recurrently thought her fish were ugly, rubbery and metallic. The best of her lot was the sweet (8th place), followed by pike/whitefish (10), no sugar (14) and regular (16).

Kedem--These gefilte fish were big bruisers, larger than the others, and lumpy-looking on the outside. Placing 12th, Kedem brand was thought to be "meatloafy," "pasty", "bland," "sweet" and having an "off taste."

Israeli brands--The most traditional of gefilte fish (made with all carp or silver carp and baby carp), the three Israeli brands were most unfamiliar to Jewish-American tastes. Called "nouvelle gefilte fish" by one taster, "like sardines," by another, these canned fish are made the old way--with the carp skin wrapped around the ground fish. Not surprisingly, two of the three Israeli brands--Sabra and Tami--placed 15th and last places, respectively. Both were rated as oily and the Tami had a remarkable resemblance, in appearance and taste, to chopped liver. The biggest surprise, though, was the evaluation of the Golan brand. It ranked in 3rd place out of all gefilte fish tasted. Although some tasters thought it was "the wrong consistency," or "greasy," others found it "most intriguing," "different" and "interesting."