Tradition in a Fish Ball

Gefilte fish is a Jewish delicacy that originated in Eastern Europe as a way to eat fish on the Sabbath and not violate any of the laws. These little balls of fish take hours to make – creating a fish broth from scratch and then chopping, chopping and more chopping of the triumvirate of white fish meat (pike, pickerel, whitefish usually) until it’s so fluffy and fine, it makes for a light, satisfying end-product.

My entire life, gefilte fish was a major hallmark of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is today, and Passover, which is the big Jewish spring festival. My grandmother spent an entire day before each holiday in her kitchen just to create this delicious recipe from scratch.

Many families never have this joy, to eat homemade gefilte fish. It comes jellied in jars (gross) and frozen in a log (passable), but it takes a lot of work and expertise and a loving family recipe handed down through the generations to make it well from scratch.

It also requires a desire to connect with family roots and traditions. And you have to want to spend a day in a fishy-smelling kitchen creating something from nothing. When do any of us ever have the luxury of time?

Gigi & Me
Gigi & Me

Grandma Sheila’s recipe included lots of soft cooked carrots, another symbol of the Jewish New Year (sharpen your eyesight so you’ll see the Truth). Her end-product was little beige-colored balls with orange flecks and a tiny circular slice of soft carrot as a cap on top of each fish ball. She presented this appetizer on a tray laden with lettuce leaves so the contrast in color was quite enticing. (After all, we eat with our eyes before we ever put a bite in our mouths.)

Yesterday, Grandma was noticeably absent from our holiday table. My mother and my aunt faithfully made her recipe, though, and the taste of my childhood, of my identity, was presented on the same platter with the same excitement coursing through each of us.

They spent an entire day slaving in the kitchen to create this constant for all of us. We didn’t speak of the fact that Grandma wasn’t well enough to attend. I don’t think any of us want to admit it aloud. (I will go see her today, though, and it will be the highlight of my day just to give her a hug.)

My family is no more religious than most American Jews, but we eat this dish because its taste reminds us of what we love and who we are. Never mind its origins – Jewish Law prevents separating good from bad on holidays and Sabbaths so eating fish with bones is forbidden. Our ancestors created gefilte fish as a way to have a fish appetizer on special days without violating the law.

Pretty creative, right? None of us really care about why it originated, now; it’s just part of who we are.

flavors-faithThis notion of food signifying faith, identity and community is a powerful one (and the premise for my recent book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.) I get more from my family table on a holiday than milling about in a packed synagogue. In fact, I wrote a story recently in about making holidays my own. (Read it here.)

When my grandmother still lived in her apartment, my kids would eagerly anticipate our next visit, so that she could make them vegetable soup. It was Campbell’s vegetable soup, to be exact, but it was the act of their great-grandmother making it for them that warmed their souls. It just made them feel loved and the flavor of that can of soup reminded them of Gigi.

I feel the same way about all the delicious foods I enjoyed last night with my parents and my cousins and my sister and her family. Even though the chopped liver was store-bought, its rich, smooth flavor conjured memories of the china pattern and tablecloth at my grandmother’s holiday table.

The brisket, as it melted in my mouth, and the farfel – really just a mess of oil and noodles and fried onions – were so familiar, I felt my heart warming as I ate. The way the Hebrew words of the prayers rushed out of my brother-in-law’s mouth was strikingly similar to Friday night sleepovers at my grandparents’ house decades ago, Grandpa standing at the kitchen table, the words of the blessing over wine rushing forth in a blur.

It’s just a dinner around a table, really. But it’s a foundational block of identity and family, too. And the heart and soul that goes into making these familiar, nourishing, soul-warming recipes is a way we communicate love to all around us.

Silly me. I had one job this year, to bring a vegetable tray. For some reason, my sister and my mother think my vegetable trays are extraordinary.

And perhaps it is their belief in me that prompts me to look for creative additions to the tray each time: small sweet peppers; Kalamata olives in one corner, black olives in another. Hearts of palm and artichoke hearts and Syrian cucumber slices. Sometimes I include pickles. It’s different every time.

But to them, and to me, it’s the art of nourishing others, of all of us coming together over, yes, the family table, to celebrate special times. To support one another. To stop the busy-ness of our lives because an occasion demands that we gather and celebrate and commiserate and lean on one another.

That’s the definition of family. People who will be there for you when you need them most, and with whom we can access shared memories that stabilize our lives. It’s not just a ball of fish. It’s so much more.

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