One of Hillary Clinton’s emails released in 2015 had as its subject line: “Gefilte Fish.” And the message of the email was: “Where are we on this?” I laughed out loud at the idea of Mrs. Clinton discussing gefilte fish (it turned out the question was related to an effort by Secretary of State Clinton to get Israel to allow a blocked US shipment of carp). But I also laughed because in many ways, that’s how I’ve been approaching gefilte fish for holiday meals in recent years. Where are we on this, and more specifically, how can I find a way to honor this tradition?
There are those who love gefilte fish and those who hate it. I’m not one of the ones who love it. And in good Jewish fashion, I feel somewhat guilty about that, especially because the food is an icon of Jewish American cuisine and it’s traveled an interesting journey to get there.
The story begins with the fact that Jews have loved fish and considered it a symbol of fertility and blessing since ancient times. But poor Ashkenazic Jews in Europe trying to stretch limited resources often had to get creative to feed their families. One way was turning to an ancient Roman cooking method of stuffing food back in the skin for cooking. Jews adopted it for fish, and that’s how the dish got its Yiddish name gefilte, which means filled or stuffed.
Preparing gefilte fish started with buying a whole live carp or pike. Some would go so far as to keep the live fish in the bathtub for a few days to help remove the muddy flavor before butchering it. Then cooks would debone and grind the fish; add onion, bread or matzah crumbs, eggs, salt, pepper and sometimes sugar; and stuff the mixture back into the fish skin for poaching in liquid.
Over time, cooks evolved away from cooking the fish in the skin, but the name remained and gefilte fish, shaped into loaves or egg-shaped ovals called quenelles, became a favored chilled or room temperature appetizer for Shabbat dinners (where the advance preparation respected the Sabbath prohibition against separating undesirable parts, like bones, from desirable ones, like flesh). It also became traditional at holiday meals, especially Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
European Jewish immigrants brought the tradition with them to America, but eventually gefilte-fish-making began dying off. Then, after World War II, small commercial enterprises began selling gefilte fish in cans. Manischewitz entered the game in 1954, and mass-produced gefilte fish began hitting the shelves and the holiday tables. Although these versions were considered inferior to homemade, they nonetheless became quite popular (if it meant not having a carp in your bathtub, I can see why!).
Recently in the United States, gefilte fish has been having somewhat of a renaissance, with homemade recipes and even artisanal prepared versions billed as game changers. Given that I don’t love the dish, I wasn’t intrigued by making it myself. So I bought an artisanal version, sure that this would overcome the gefilte fish problem. Alas, no. I joined nearly all my dinner guests in leaving most of those fancy slices on the plates—even people who like gefilte fish didn’t like it.
So back to the perennial “where are we on this” question. This year, I sought an alternative that honored the concept but offered flavor I could enjoy and a process I’d be willing to undertake. As I often do, I looked for inspiration in Jewish–Italian cuisine. In The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, Edda Servi Machlin shares a recipe for polpettone di tonno (tuna loaf), and I found a similar recipe in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. The recipes featured canned tuna, and, like gefilte fish, are made ahead and served cold or room temperature. I sensed potential.
I started testing and decided to add an ingredient sometimes featured in Italian fish dishes, artichokes, which mellowed the fish flavor and gave it more dimension. Machlin’s version called for breadcrumbs, but Hazan’s version called for mashed potato, which I preferred to make the dish gluten-free as well as acceptable for Passover.
Machlin served it with an egg and anchovy sauce, but I wanted flavors to freshen the dish and turned to the bright and beautiful Italian salsa verde (green sauce). In a nod to the tradition of serving horseradish with gefilte fish, I added a little bit of the pungent root, which gives the sauce a nice subtle kick.
Despite all this tinkering, I don’t take altering such iconic foods lightly. But I hope my tuna and artichoke loaf offers an alternate connection to Jewish culinary history that celebrates the role and spirit of gefilte fish—and is something that will please the haters and not disappoint the lovers. And along the way alleviate my guilt about not liking gefilte fish.
When I took a bite and then wanted to eat another and another, I was pretty thrilled. But the real test came when I presented the new dish to a group of dinner guests. To my relief, it was warmly received even by the people who normally eschew gefilte fish. And I had a jar of store-bought gefilte fish standing by for the guests who love the traditional kind…but it went unopened.
Now, when it comes to gefilte fish, I finally know where I am at on this and what I’ll make: polpettone di tonno.