Poetica Magazine    

 

 Contemporary Jewish Writing

Deborah Batterman

 

GEFILTE FISH

 

     I will never make gefilte fish.

     Never say never, whispers a voice. The voice is distinct, warm, suffused with the ring of possibility. As quickly as it fills my head it disappears.

     Never say never.

     I take apart the phrase, try to read between the words. Like an archeologist searching for some link to a past existence, I piece together the disparate images of a vision taking hold. The crackling of onions in a frying pan. The sweet smell of chicken soup simmering in a stock pot. The army of tiny worms my imagination conjured whenever the meat grinder performed its magic.

     My mother's fingers in everything.

     To use any of the bright plastic measuring cups and spoons that sat in drawers waiting for some child to claim them as toys would be like defying gravity. You schit, she told me, with a smile and an unassuming shrug, whenever I asked for some clue to her culinary magic. The sound of the not quite translatable Yiddish word, possibly derived from the German sch¨¹tten (to pour) and/or the Yiddish shitterayn (a little of this/a little of that), always made me laugh. She would take the coarse kosher salt, throw it in a salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and scallions along with Mazola corn oil. And toss, with her fingers, which I grew to believe contained some spice, some flavor, that enhanced everything she made.

     Which is only part of the reason I will never make gefilte fish. I could say it's too time-consuming, I'd be tempted to use my Cuisinart, jarred fish is good enough. But all of these excuses miss the point. To make gefilte fish the way my mother did requires the right mix of instinct, tradition, carp, pike, salt, pepper, onions, and, yes, her fingers, along with certain assumptions that seem, in retrospect, tied to the very ritual of preparing for the holidays.

     In my mother's case that meant taking off from work two days ahead of time, picking up the chicken and fish and liver and vegetables (and fruit and salad and cake). Sending the chicken back to the butcher if there was so much as a feather or a bruise on any piece. Returning any fish that smelled 'fishy.' For me it meant going to sleep to the smell of freshly made chopped liver, waking up to find my mother shaping a melange of fish into grainy ovals the size of her palm.

     Since Passover often coincided with tax season, during which she worked seven days a week as secretary, receptionist, chief cook and bottle washer for a family accounting firm, her bosses (who were also her cousins), were prone to complaining about her deserting them. But nothing would stop her. The holidays were not the holidays without the massive quantities of food she cooked. And Passover was not Passover without her gefilte fish.

     It's tempting to regret the loss of some things, once taken for granted. As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, observing the holidays was a mixed pleasure. I loved dressing up, meeting friends in front of the schul, going inside periodically to remind myself what it was all about. My large extended family, on the other hand, crowding in our apartment, filling it with cigarette smoke, eating as if there were no tomorrow, made me wish for something smaller, simpler, less overwhelming.

     When I grew up, moved into Manhattan, started to make my own way in the world, returning home for Passover or Rosh Hashanah seemed even more overwhelming. Divorce being the norm rather than the exception in my family (my mother's three siblings each had married more than once), by last count I had fifteen cousins. Boyfriends, girlfriends, and assorted other friends often stopped by as well.

     "You make too much food," I told my mother every year.

     "It will go," she said, filling shopping bags with jars of chicken soup and gefilte fish and containers of chopped liver and baked chicken for me. "It always does."

     It's no small irony that my mother died during Passover. One of my cousins, an exceptional cook, made gefilte fish that year. I told him how I kept promising myself I'd come down for the holidays two days early, help my mother, learn to make the fish with the funny name. He has the instinct I would need to acquire. And the time and the patience, if not my mother's fingers.

     I made chopped liver that year with another cousin. My mother was in the hospital and we telephoned her while we cooked. Keeping alive her ritual, we hoped, would sustain her. And us. We used her meat grinder.

     The voice returns. Tells me, with authority, that I should never say never.

     I pull a cookbook from my shelf, turn to the recipe for gefilte fish, which, the book informs me "may have originated in Germany or Holland sometime after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Or, it may have been invented in Russia or Poland. Or, perhaps, it was only the culinary ingenuity of a housefrau-on-a-budget in need of a food stretcher. One thing is certain. Gefilte fish is Jewish."

     I scan the recipes. There are four variations to the basic recipe, none of which rings quite true. The pressure cooker method is out of the question. Rumanian style (using an oval fish pot) requires leaving the head of the fish attached, removing the flesh from the skin and bones, preparing fileted fish as in the basic recipe. Filling the skeleton of the fish with the pulp. This is gefilte (i.e., filled) fish at its most literal.

     I read the recipes more closely, hoping that one of the variations will jump out at me.

     You schit, says a voice.

     I close the book.