20 August 2010

Food: Genealogy of gefilte fish

When my Teheran-born husband first heard "gefilte fish," he thought the name was "filthy fish." He soon learned that putting enough chrein (horseradish) on it made it palatable.

The Dallas Observer's Hanna Raskin offers a great story on the genealogy of this quintessential Ashkenazi holiday fare. It is a variation on "tell us what you eat, we'll tell you where you're from."

Gefilte fish, perhaps the most maligned food on the traditional Jewish High Holiday table, encodes its maker's ancestry as surely as hand-me-down stories and immigration papers, a local fishmonger says.

Jon Alexis of TJ's Fresh Seafood Market in Preston Forest Village claims he can almost always pinpoint where a customer's forebears first settled in the United States based on which fish they ask him to grind for their gefilte fish preparation. Although Alexis is quick to clarify his theory is based on purely anecdotal evidence -- "I don't want to upset anyone," he says -- he believes most recipes reflect a generations-old preference for certain flavors.

"These recipes are heritage, so you have that Antiques Roadshow thing," Alexis says.
Learn about the various mixtures of fish - pike, carp, whitefish, buffalo, tilapia, saltwater snapper - with a geographical tinge. Learn about the concoction with and without sugar, and what that might mean.

Nearly 50 years ago, someone suggested there was a "gefilte fish line" running about 40 miles east of Warsaw. West of it, it was sweet with sugar; to the east, it was hotter with chrein and pepper. Well-known to many Jewish genealogists searching Poland, many sugar refineries in Poland were owned by Jews and that's suggested as a possible reason.

Interestingly, though, nobody wanted credit for the sugary gefilte fish. Polish gentiles called it "Jewish fish" and Polish Jews called it "Polish fish." Gefilte fish has never been stylish.
Read the complete story at the link above, learn what a "fish dork" is, and read the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I'm half Polish and have always been interested in the ethnic/regional food variations of Central and Eastern Europe. My guess is that when relatives immigrated and the time period in which they immigrated is also part of the recipe. I must admit those jars of gefilte fish in the grocery don't look particularly appealing, at least to me. I figured it was one of those things that must taste way better than it looks. Sounds like maybe not. Thanks for the interesting post.