Deli, Good Food

Gefilte Fish Gets a Bad Rap, but It Has a Rich History

Gefilte fish on a plate

Twice a year homemade gefilte fish appears in the Deli case. I’m always happy to see it because it brings back big memories for me! I know I’m not alone—food critic Mimi Sheraton says it’s “part of the holy trinity of Jewish holiday eating: chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish.” Having grown up regularly eating all three, I see her point. My grandmother made us the first two every Friday night for dinner. And gefilte fish was on the “menu” for every Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. It’s hard for me to imagine a Jewish holiday without it!

Although gefilte fish has become a big part of Jewish holiday eating over the centuries, it isn’t actually a formal or required part of religious observance. It’s definitely not Biblically based. That said, there is an old Jewish saying: “Without fish, there is no Sabbath.” This was also true for all the big holidays, including Rosh Hashanah—fish of some sort was often part of any important celebration. Back in the 19th century, shtetl fish was bought live at the market (in fact, my great-grandfather was a fish seller in his hometown of Vawkavysk in Belarus).

The gefilte fish tradition is also based in the poverty of Eastern European Jewish society. Tradition dictated that everyone should have a piece of fish on the Sabbath or holidays, but many people couldn’t afford it. Gefilte fish made it possible to serve a small piece of fish to everyone in the family. Also, Jewish law prohibits any work on the Sabbath or High Holidays, and it was determined many centuries ago that pulling bones out of fish was considered “work.” That meant that any fish dish eaten on the Sabbath or High Holidays (like Rosh Hashanah) had to be boneless. Hence, gefilte fish—fish that was boned, ground, and poached to make for easy, work-free consumption.

While I know it gets a bad rap at times, gefilte fish is GOOD! It’s truly an appetizer that everyone could and should try. Made with fresh lake fish and spiced with sea salt and white pepper—the fish we use is ground in the Deli kitchen, then poached in homemade fish broth. Over the years, co-managing partner Rodger Bowser and the Deli kitchen crew have gotten really good at making this traditional Jewish specialty. Buy it by the piece and serve it with the fresh ground horseradish (be careful—it’s HOT!) that they’re making.

Check out the Deli’s entire Rosh Hashanah menu, which includes everything from saffroned chicken to potato kugel and much more! Happy New Year!