My paternal grandmother, Bobe, used to make two kinds of gefilte fish every Friday: the white or traditional one, and the red or a la Veracruzana. The moment you sat down, she made you choose: “Which do you want, mamele, white or red?”
Invariably, after you chose, she’d ask, “You don’t like the way I make the other one?”
She’d barge in, make room on your plate and serve you the kind you hadn’t picked, right next to the one you had. She’d wait for you to taste it and tell her how good the one you hadn’t chosen was. Then, she would eat some right off your plate.
Having come from tiny shtetls in the Polish countryside, both she and my grandfather arrived in Mexico when very young. The country gave them an opportunity to start a life away from pogroms.
They worked hard and made a simple, but good life for themselves. Though they were humble and with little in savings, every Friday they had a bountiful table full of food for their three grown children and their families—ten granddaughters in total! Nope, not a single grandson.
Mexico also brought so many flavors to Bobe’s traditional foods. At the table there was petchah (chicken foot jelly!) that could be garnished with a salsa verde cruda. Gribenes (chicken cracklings) were tucked into warm corn tortillas with a heaping spoonful of fresh guacamole. The crispiest potato kugel, a stew that always had falling-apart meat and soupy prune or carrot tzimmes were there as well. To finish, it was her prized chocolate babka spiked with Mexican canela.
Yet, nothing beat her Mexican-style gefilte fish, aka the red one.
The red is different from the white in so many ways. The white, or traditional, is made by combining ground fish filets, white onion, carrots, eggs and matzah meal and shaping them into patties that are poached in a stock made with the head, tail and bones of the fish. It is refrigerated, covered with this same fish stock, which turns gelatinous as it cools (a delicacy if you have the acquired taste). It is served cold.
The red uses the same fish mixture, but it is poached in a thick and spiced up tomato sauce enriched with capers, green olives and mild pickled peppers. It is served hot. Everyone in my family is wild about it.
The red sauce is called Veracruzana because it comes from the state of Veracruz, which geographically seems to embrace the Gulf of Mexico. The Veracruzana sauce is traditionally served over large fish, and its flavors showcase the intermarriage of Spanish and Mexican ingredients that took place throughout the years of Spanish colonization. It was through the port of Veracruz that most European immigrants came into Mexico, like my Bobe.
One heck of a cook she was, with her treasured jar of shmaltz in the refrigerator ready to be scooped out and used on almost anything. She was as generous in her cooking as she was in life. After my parents divorced when I was an early teen, she would put money in my backpack or my jacket, without me noticing, every time I visited. She knew I didn’t want to take it, as she didn’t have any extra to give out.
I never had the chance to serve Veracruzana gefilte fish from my kitchen to my Bobe. She passed away just a couple months ago, and oh man, I wish I had. She would have been so proud. She probably would have asked me, “Why, mamele, you didn’t like the white?”
My gefilte fish will always be for you, Bobe. And just so you know, I always make the red and the white. I miss you so badly.