It was in 2009 that Jewish food writer and entrepreneur Jeffrey Yoskowitz started noticing that the institution of the Jewish deli seemed like it was dying out.
“The older generation was gone, and there was no one replacing them,” he explains. “Ashkenazic cuisine just wasn’t sexy; there were no young Jewish chefs out there trying to reinvent it.” Yoskowitz grew up in New Jersey on deli meats and knishes and remembers a certain point in his adolescence when it all got replaced with bad falafel and canned salatim (salads). “I call it ‘the falafel-ization of Jewish cuisine,’” he says.
He had just finished the Adamah Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut and was serving as the pickling apprentice there. Making 50-gallon drums of live-culture sour dills and sauerkraut, Yoskowitz started to get excited about old-school, Eastern-European Jewish cooking.
“People were talking about eating sustainable and kosher, and they were eating kale and tofu and pastured meat, but there was no discussion of cultural Ashkenazic foods. Something was missing,” he said.
So together with business partner Liz Alpern, who had previously worked with Joan Nathan, Yoskowitz decided to write a manifesto, a statement about the value of Ashkenazic cuisine.
“Think about the kosher aisle at the supermarket,” Yoskowitz says, “About how embarrassing it is to tell people, yeah, that’s Jewish food: jarred gefilte fish.”
Indeed, that jarred, filler-laden product became a symbol for Yoskowitz and Alpern. “Gefilte fish is its own cultural phenomenon,” he explains. “We wanted to reclaim it, to go back to the basics, but using better quality fish, sourced from sustainable fisheries and made with no fillers or additives.”
Thus, the Gefilteria was born, with Yoskowitz and Alpern making gefilte fish in a rented Orthodox synagogue kitchen and scaling up from there. They now operate out of a facility in New Jersey and sell wholesale quantities. They currently offer their signature loaf, made of whitefish and pike (invasive species in the Great Lakes), with a stripe of pink steelhead and salmon for pizazz. Their product will be available at DC’s DGS Delicatessen in time for Passover for the first time this year.
In developing their product Yoskowitz says they tried out various recipes, but wound up coming back to the basics. ”The older generation says it tastes like home,” he says. “It’s got a traditional feel, but new.” However, he explains that their product has a slightly cleaner, less fishy taste because they eschew the use of carp (of The Carp in the Bathtub infamy). The flavor profile is a hybrid of sweet and peppery, but not too far on either side, with lots of onion flavor (the loaves are actually baked in an onion broth).
The Gefilteria’s primary goal is to get people excited about Ashkenazic food traditions. At one point, they hit a snag in production with their horseradish product, so they gave the recipe out to all of their customers, and people have been making it on their own since then.
Yoskowitz and Alpern also host pop-up dinners, offer talks and demos and teach classes (including one at Brandeis on Jewish culinary history). Their upcoming cookbook The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods is slated to come out in September of this year and is available for pre-order.
Yoskowitz says the cookbook is the culmination of their growth and the work they are doing on the educational front. “Usually Jewish cookbooks are separated into the holidays,” he explains. “We decided to separate by food groups because it’s not just about the holidays. It goes deeper than that—it’s about what’s for dinner on a Tuesday night and what staples are in your pantry; it’s about making schmaltz and pickles from scratch.”
Top photo: The Gefilteria’s gefilte fish. Photo by Lauren Volo.