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The plot, like the jelly which surrounds a piece of gefilte fish, thickens. I am referring, of course, to knowledge I have gained since my post about Yiddish. It appears that my mother's parents, both Jews, were each born on the other side of a great linguistic-religious-culinary divide known to mavens of Ashkenazi gastronomy as the Gefilte Fish Line. (Thank you, Michael Steinlauf.) All right. I realize that some of my readers are vegans, Shia or Sunni Muslims, and possibly High Church Episcopalians. Therefore I must explain what gefilte fish is before I go any further: The Jewish holiday of Passover will be coming up soon (April 20, to be exact), and in those stores which sell Passover food (most urban California supermarkets do), you will find jars of lozenge-shaped fish patties swimming in juice or jelly. That is the mass market version. To the Jewish women from whom we are descended, however, gefilte fish was a delicacy made from fresh-water fish, bones carefully removed, then lovingly shaped into fish-like shapes, cooked, and served with horseradish. The most fanatical gefilte fish makers would actually stuff the skins of the fish used to make the delicacy with the fish mixture: hence gefilte, or "filled." However, my own eyes have never observed an actual stuffed fish version of the dish.
Now, as the Shia Muslims, and perhaps even the Episcopalians (but not the true vegans) are undoubtedly asking, what is the best kind of fish from which which to make gefilte fish? For the answer, I must turn to an original source, and there is no more reliable source than my own grandmother. The answer, as I learned in my childhood: pike, whitefish, and buffle. Buffle? Did she mean buffalo fish? I think not. I think she meant buffle. So if you can't find buffle in your local fish market, you are already compromising your standards for the finest gefilte fish.
And here is the point of departure for the thickening plot, and the linguistic-religious-culinary divide to which I referred earlier. You see, even though my grandmother knew how to make the finest gefilte fish, she never made it for my grandfather. (I just learned that in an email from my mother). But why not? My dear departed grandparents have taken the answer to their graves, so we can only conjecture. And my conjecture is this: my grandfather was a Litvak, and my grandmother made Galitzianer gefilte fish.
Today, even most Jews don't know the difference between a Litvak and a Galitzianer, and I certainly didn't until recently. But a big difference it was, with roots, ultimately, in theology. And if there are any two things that Jews can and will fight each other about, theology and food are those two things. Remember the Pharisees and the Sadducees? They argued about food too, specifically the burnt offererings in the Temple.
Now the Litvaks lived mostly in Lithuania, a territory long dominated by Russia, where they founded schools of higher religious education know as yeshivas, with high intellectual standards and rigorously legalistic debates. The Galitzianer, who lived east of the Gefilte Fish Line, in territory that was dominated by Austria, came under the influence of a highly emotional, charismatic form of Judaism known as Hasidism. Remember that Austria is the land of viennoiserie, breads which are sweetened, and of course Sachertortes, Linzertortes, another other sweet goodies consumed with that famous Viennese beverage, coffee. (They drink it with whipped cream on top, I hear.)
So who would be surprised if the Galiztianer might put a little sugar, just a pinch, into their gefilte fish? A Litvak, that's who. Sugar? In fish? That does not compute, and Litvaks were into computing long before their descendants had computers. What would one expect from the kind of people who dance around in fur hats singing yam-bim-bam and only putting 9 hours a day into studying Torah instead of 14 hours?
The battle between the hair-splitting Litvak intelligentsia (called Mitnagdim) and the Galitizianer holy-rolling Hasidim raged on for centuries, and probably still does. And if that wasn't bad enough, they pronounce their Yiddish differently. A Litvak Jew named Moyshe Pupik, for example, should he have wandered recklessly across the Gefilte Fish Line, would have been addressed as "Meysh Pipik," and would have had to endure it as well as gefilte fish with (feh!) sugar in it.
So, then: what is in the supermarket gefilte fish which comes in jars? The Manischewitz website doesn't say. You can get 14 different kinds, including "whitefish" and (get this) "sweet whitefish." There is jelled and not jelled. And none of the 14 kinds contain any buffle. They are all, however, certified kosher. Be that as it may, don't expect the "sweet whitefish" to be kosher for Litvaks.Permanent Link to This Entry | | | Technorati Tag: GefilteFish blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
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