Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gefilte Fish

I'm not afraid to admit that I love gefilte fish.

This morning, as I was trying to describe it to Brock Windsor (chef at the superlative Stone Soup Inn, reviewed here), Ilana intervened: "It's one of those things that's so bad it's good." Her view may represent many, but that's not at all my meaning. As far back as I can remember I took seconds of gefilte fish every Passover. I still bound into the kitchen after polishing my first plate, thrilling at the prospect of another piece of ground and boiled whitefish. I almost always contemplate thirds, even as the matza ball soup--that obsequious crowd pleaser, shameless panderer--begins to hit the table.

Gefilte fish is an easy dish to get wrong. White fish, traditionally carp or pike, is ground and mixed with onion, egg, matza meal, and a healthy portion of pepper. Wet and sticky, it is rolled into balls and then boiled for hours. It is served cold, with a heaping spoonful of horseradish, and, in my my family, a leaf of iceberg lettuce. Its a dish that makes no compromise for the squeamish. It "tastes like fish." Done right--firm but light, subtle but not bland--it is both entirely distinctive and delicious. And my Bubbie always got it right.

My Bubbie communicated a quiet authority over her small and immaculate house in Forest Hill, an early suburb of Toronto. I can't recall that she ever had to spell-out rules for her grandchildren or descend to the level of discipline. Instead, she carried herself with a poise that seemed to demand reasonable comportment, particular decorum. A short woman, she walked very upright, almost stiffly, and she spoke softly. She and her house--with lamps poised on three-legged wooden tables, hardcovers held in place by bookends with tiny sword letter openers, glass bowls with sugarless candy--set silent boundaries on any rambunctiousness.

And she cooked a great family meal. She made the hearty unpretentious food of mid-century mothers and wives. A brocoli casserole, creamy and topped with a breadcrumb crust. Baked meatballs in a sweet and savoury red sauce. Hearty cuts of beef, cooked long, slow, and wet. But I think she took particular pride in her Jewish cooking, and perhaps especially in her gefilte fish. I don't recall her ever saying so, but I think she noticed that I always took seconds. She smiled satisfaction at having gotten it just right for another festive meal.

I'm the last one up in my house tonight, waiting out those long hours of boiling. For the first time, I'm trying to cook my Bubbie's gefilte fish. I feel far from home tonight, here on the West Coast, thousands of miles from my Bubbie's house, which is now, having been sold to an orthodox family after her death, likely filled too with aromas of boiling fish. I've had to make substitutions. No one in town has even heard of whitefish. There's no carp for sale. And I'm a novice, working alone. But I have my Bubbie's recipe, words of encouragement from my mother, and I'm sure hoping that I get it just right.


  1. Wow, it is as though you took me on a trip to the other side of that gelatinous blob that was displayed on the market shelves of my childhood towards something that I just might like to try a taste of.

  2. I don't know, my efforts were mixed at best. But I know the adjustments that I am planning. Maybe next spring?