It may not have the recuperative qualities of hot chicken soup. Or the sweet aroma of freshly baked challah. But love it, or not, gefilte fish has made quite a mark on Jewish culinary life.
Why gefilte fish? And why the Jews? Claudia Rosen examines the talmudic sources that brought this fish to the Sabbath table. “Gefilte fish evolved as a Sabbath dish because stuffing gives it glamour and because certain versions eliminate the need to remove bones (which could be considered a forbidden activity on the Sabbath).” [http://bit.ly/gefilte1]
Not so quick says Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik. He adds reassuringly that it seems those who have opted not to eat gefilte fish have not suffered from communal opprobrium. “Gefilte fish is an east European dish, and Jews had been eating fish on Sabbath for some 15 centuries before this culinary creation. Even in eastern Europe, I know of no instance of someone being labelled a mehallel [desecrator of] Shabbas and run out of town for eating ‘non-gefilte’ fish.” [http://bit.ly/gefilte2]
But could our attachment to gefilte fish run even deeper? Could it be mystical? Food writer Gil Marks explains, “For millennia, no Sabbath meal has been considered complete without fish, Friday night encompassing the theme of creation and Shalosh Seudot at the end of Shabbat that [will be during the days of] the messiah. The Talmud (Shabbat 118b) stated, ‘Wherewith does one show delight in the Sabbath?’ Rav Judah, the son of Samuel ben Shilath, said in the name of Rav, ‘With beets (the greens), a large fish and garlic.’ Even a trifle, if it is prepared in honour of Shabbat is a delight. What is it (a trifle)? Rav Papa said, ‘Fish hash.’” Then Gil Marks adds, “Perhaps the latter dish consisting of chopped fish was the inspiration for the Ashkenazi gefilte fish.” [http://bit.ly/gefilte3]
So what went wrong? Tamara Mann points to the growth of kosher food in America and the commercialization of Jewish foods. “Authenticity and nostalgia, postwar businesses gleefully discovered, could be bottled, packaged and sold. And while numerous foods, such as cholent, kishka and chopped liver recalled the steamy kitchens of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, only one food could be easily mass produced and slapped on the table without reheating: gefilte fish.” [http://bit.ly/gefilte7]
Or as Miriam Silver mouth-wateringly describes it, “Fast forward to contemporary U.S.A. with its fast-food convenience culture, and those oval, grey fish balls, mass-manufactured, tanked in a jar, swimming in jelly, along with a few old cooked carrots.” [http://bit.ly/gefilte5]
We have indeed noticed those glass jars with four or so pieces of gefilte fish suspended in a bath of gelatinous goo. But did you ever suspect that someone took out a patent on these vertical boneless fish – just as they do for iPads or jet turbines? You can read up on the “method of preparing an edible fish product” patented Oct. 29, 1963, at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. More than 3,000 words and a page of illustrations, all to secure Patent No. 3,108,882!
And here’s to you, “inventors” of mass-market gefilte fish – and a slice of our heritage: Monroe Nash and Erich G. Freudenstein. [http://bit.ly/gefilte6]
Next time, gefilte fish: the great debates.