I’m not fully Jewish. My dad is the Jew. My mom was raised Catholic. We celebrate both major holidays of each tradition. Our gatherings are always small.
My family has a lax way of celebrating the holidays. Mommy’s side of the family all lives in England (she’s British) and Daddy’s side of the family all lives in Boca Raton (he’s a New York Jew), so most holidays it’s only my parents, my brother, my sister, and me. Now, holidays will often include my boyfriend (party time!). Before that it was just the 5 of us eating alone during Christmas dinner, Yom Kippur, Thanksgiving, Passover, Easter brunch, even July 4th. That’s not to say it didn’t have it’s moments. We didn’t have to dress up. I wore pajamas and often by the end of the dinner we were all making inappropriate jokes about…well…you don’t want to know.
Since we had such small family gatherings, we altered the meals to fit our desires. We had the basics, but we got to mix it up a bit. If there was a traditional item that we didn’t like, we scrapped it. Yet, there was one thing my mom always kept on the Seder menu that I didn’t understand.
The nasty jarred kind that just…oh my gosh ew I can’t even talk about it.
I know for certain, however, that it wasn’t always this way. I remember being told a story once about a great-grandmother who used to go out on Thursday, buy a live carp, and keep it in the bathtub until it was time to kill it and make it into gefilte fish for the Shabbos meal or a holiday. I actually found some proof that that’s a custom of Eastern European Jews (she was Polish). Obviously it’s not a traditionally jarred food. And obviously we eat it for a reason. I decided to check it out.
What IS gefilte fish? First and foremost, you should know what gefilte fish is. The easiest way to describe it is fish meatloaf.
It’s a mix of starch, onions, eggs, and ground fish, both the meat and bones. I’ll explain that later. The most commonly used fishes are fatty white ones, such as cod, carp, pike, or perch.
The word “gefilte” actually means “stuffed” in Yiddish, which is what the fish originally was. Jewish women would carefully skin the chosen fish. After, the ingredient mixture would be stuffed back in the skin and baked in the oven. Eventually, the practice of stuffing the fish skin died out and Jewish cooks formed fish balls to steam or boil in fish stock.
UPDATE! My dad just sent me this in an email and wanted me to share: The German word for stuffed is: “gefüllt”, but owing to the differences in Yiddish/English pronunciation it has become: gefilte.
There is a difference between flavors of homemade gefilte fish, depending on the background of the cook making it. In the Middle Ages, gefilte fish from Poland was sweet, whereas fish from Lithuania was peppery. This is why most Jews with a polish background prefer the sweetened gefilte, while Jews of Russian or Lithuanian backgrounds prefer the unsweetened version. The sweet commercial style is called “Old Vienna” gefilte fish.
This is referred to as the “gefilte fish line,” a play on the 49th parallel and the Mason-Dixon line.
Why do Jews eat fish on the Sabbath? If you aren’t fully versed in the way of the Jew, you might like to know that gefilte fish is not saved for High Holy Days. Fish is a traditional part of the Shabbos meal, which occurs on Friday night at sundown and ends Saturday night at sundown. Ancient Jews believed that fish was an aphrodisiac and, since Friday was the day couples were encouraged to…uh…be fruitful and multiply, it was always served. Ya know. In the hopes that couples would be, well, fruitful that night.
You might be asking yourself “Gee, if they want people to feel all sexy, why are they being fed gray lumps of fishloaf?” Cause let’s face it; it lacks the sexiness of, say, this:
Here’s why: Jewish law, in particular the Talmud Tractate Shabbat, dictates 39 forbidden activities for the Sabbath, also know as melachot. Since the Sabbath is the day that one is supposed to cease working, the Talmud covers as many work activities as possible. That way, it’s impossible for the reader to misunderstand. Reading through the list, I noticed that most of them directly or indirectly have to do with food, but the one that explains the ground mixture of fish and bones is borer.
Borer is sorting. One is forbidden from sorting the bad from the good. For example, sorting the inedible part of the food from the edible part of the food. Like fish meat from fish bones. I’m going to copy and paste an explanation from a site here:
7 – Borer – Sorting (selecting, separating) The seventh of the 39 melachot, is borer, or sorting. It is any form of selecting or sorting inedible matter from food by hand. This includes removing undesired objects or matter from a mixture or combination such as removing spoiled cherries from a bowl of cherries or removing bones from a fish. (Gefilte fish is the traditional Ashkenazi solution to this problem.) Borer also includes the sorting of nonfood items mixed together, such as sorting dirty silverware from a mixture of clean and dirty silverware. Sorting is only permitted when ALL of the following three conditions are met:
1) The selection is done by hand.
2) The desired objects are selected from the undesired, and not the reverse.
3) The selection is done immediately before the time of use. For example, if one has a bowl of mixed almonds and raisins and wants only the raisins, you must remove the raisins by hand, remove the raisins from the almonds, and intend to eat all the selected raisins immediately after removing them. This description of the complex melacha of Borer is very simplified, see note above. (1)
There’s the ultra simplified explanation.
So, if gefilte fish was originally a delicacy enjoyed on the Sabbath and High Holy Days, why the heck are we in America eating that stuff that comes out of a jar of jelly? Because in America, time is money. People no longer spend as much time cooking their meals as they used to. Gefilte fish is a process, and we’d rather skip the process and have the food, even at the cost of yumminess (TV dinner, anyone?). Read this:
The modern kosher food industry began when two advertising ingénues, Joshua C. Epstein and Joseph Jacobs, convinced H.J. Heinz and Maxwell House Coffee that the kosher market could yield significant profits. By agreeing to kosher inspections, advertising in the Yiddish press, and designing innovative ad products like the famed Maxwell House Haggadah, American food companies found their way into the homes of upwardly mobile urban and, later, suburban Jews. By the end of the 1950s, the kosher industry had grown tenfold from 1945, with more than 1,800 available kosher products. (2)
It started to get canned so these dudes could make some money. Many kosher foods could not be canned or bottled, but gefilte fish could. And it could be served cold, directly from the jar. So there goes the whole “time consuming” aspect of making gefilte fish.
These days, gefilte fish is a kind of joke, just like the Jewish guilt-tripping mother and the love of gold jewelry. It’s part of being a modern Jew. I guess in a way you could say we’re all a little proud of it. Having our own personal joke. It even spawned this:
Don’t you feel a little better now, knowing why you’re forced to eat this jarred monstrosity? Neither do I.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
P.S. Citations. I realized I hadn’t been citing things (shame on me). So I am now. Both info and pictures. It’s really hard to properly format citations on WordPress (shame on them).
-Claudia, Roden. “Gefilte Fish and the Jews.” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <http://jhom.com/topics/fish/gefilte.html>.
-Mann, Tamara. “Gefilte Fish in America – My Jewish Learning.” Judaism & Jewish Life – My Jewish Learning. Web. 17 Apr. 2011. <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/culture/2/Food/Ashkenazic_Cuisine/Poland_and_Russia/Gefilte_Fish_in_America.shtml>.
-Student, Gil. “Fish, Bones, In-laws and Mimeticism ~ Hirhurim – Musings.” Hirhurim – Musings. 30 Oct. 2005. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2005/10/fish-bones-in-laws-and-mimeticism.html>.
-Gladstone, Bill. “This Is No Fish Tale: Gefilte Tastes Tell Story of Ancestry.” Jweekly.com. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 10 Sept. 1999. Web.18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/11588/this-is-no-fish-tale-gefilte-tastes-tell-story-of-ancestry/>.
-Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Food and Drink.” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe 18 February 2011. 20 April 2011 <http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Food_and_Drink>.
-“Torah Tots 39 Melachot.” Torah Tots – The Premier Site for Jewish Children. 2005. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.torahtots.com/torah/39melachot.htm>.
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