In the late 1950s, WEVD, the radio station owned by the Jewish Daily Forward, ran an ad for gefilte fish in advance of the upcoming holiday of Passover. In English, the announcer proclaimed, “This holiday, buy gefilte fish in gleaming glass jars, made in the finest tradition of Passover, under strict rabbinical supervision. Delicately light, always right. Gefilte fish in jars.” While the bland gray oval patties swimming in jelly have indeed become something of a tradition—you will still find them on the kosher-for-Passover shelves of your local supermarket in springtime, more than fifty years later—they bear little resemblance to the food item initially described by that name.
Gefilte fish entered Jewish cuisine in medieval Germany and became a staple among Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century. The name means “stuffed fish” in Yiddish and reflects the preparation process, which involves filleting the fish, chopping the flesh, mixing in various ingredients—such as matzo meal, onions, salt, and eggs—and stuffing the mixture back into the fish skin. The “stuffed fish” is then grilled, baked, or simmered over a low flame and served intact, often with a garnish of carrots and onions.
Access to a variety of prepared foods and a growing disengagement from tradition caused a rapid decline in gefilte fish preparation in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. The dish did not disappear from Jewish tables entirely, however, thanks to the availability of commercially mass-produced jarred gefilte fish. While this jarred product is the one most commonly associated with the term “gefilte fish” in the popular American imagination, many Jewish cooks continued to prepare gefilte fish at home, and the homemade version is regaining popularity today, with artisanal varieties for sale from food companies such as Brooklyn’s Gefilteria.
The Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project has recorded several interviews with American Jews who make gefilte fish themselves and remember their mothers and grandmothers preparing the food. Adina Gordon from Brooklyn and Marilyn Cassotta from the Bronx both recall how their grandmother and mother respectively would buy a live carp and let it swim in the bathtub until it was ready to be killed, gutted, and made into gefilte fish.
In Eastern Europe, the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM) project has recorded dozens of interviews with Yiddish speakers in Ukraine and Moldova who related their own recipes for gefilte fish. Evgeniia Krasner, from Shpykiv, Ukraine, describes the process quite graphically: “You cut the belly and you take out the intestines. Then you creep with your hand under the skin to take out the meat.” What happens next is a topic of hot debate among gefilte fish makers: Some swear to the superiority of “gehakte,” or “chopped,” fish, which is made by hand with a special chopping knife, while others prefer the faster method of putting the flesh through a meat mincer.
Perhaps even more contested is the flavor of the fish: Ms. Krasner, for instance, states in no uncertain terms that she prefers her fish savory, going so far as to claim that sweet gefilte fish makes her queasy. The sweet versus savory distinction goes deeper than simply being a matter of personal preference—scholars have discovered that there are discrete geographical areas in which each type of fish is prepared. The “gefilte fish line” that divides the sweet from the savory regions of Europe happens to trace almost precisely the line that divides the Central Yiddish dialect (spoken primarily in the region roughly corresponding to present-day Poland) from the Southeastern and Northeastern dialects (spoken primarily in the regions corresponding to present-day Ukraine and Lithuania/Belarus, respectively). As the Yiddish linguist Marvin Herzog, among others, has noted, “sweetened fish, also called pojliʂe fiʂ (‘Polish fish’), is generally unpalatable to those east of the indicated [dialect] border, who prefer their fish seasoned only with pepper.”
Asya Vaisman Schulman is director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Yiddish Language Institute. She has taught Yiddish at Harvard University, Indiana University, and Hampshire College.