At life’s end, rediscovering the joys of a childhood favorite
Gefilte fish is not an everyday dish; it is to be eaten mainly on the Jewish Sabbath in Orthodox households, when cooking is not allowed. When I was growing up, my mother would take off from her surgical duties early on Friday afternoon and devote her time, before the coming of Shabbat, to preparing gefilte fish and other Sabbath dishes.
Our gefilte fish was basically carp, to which pike, whitefish, and sometimes perch or mullet would be added. (The fishmonger delivered the fish alive, swimming in a pail of water.) The fish had to be skinned, boned, and fed into a grinder—we had a massive metal grinder attached to the kitchen table, and my mother would sometimes let me turn the handle. She would then mix the ground fish with raw eggs, matzo meal, and pepper and sugar. (Litvak gefilte fish, I was told, used more pepper, which is how she made it—my father was a Litvak, born in Lithuania.)
My mother would fashion the mixture into balls about two inches in diameter—two to three pounds of fish would allow a dozen or more substantial fish balls—and then poach these gently with a few slices of carrot. As the gefilte fish cooled, a jelly of an extraordinarily delicate sort coalesced, and, as a child, I had a passion for the fish balls and their rich jelly, along with the obligatory khreyn (Yiddish for horseradish).
I thought I would never taste anything like my mother’s gefilte fish again, but in my forties I found a housekeeper, Helen Jones, with a veritable genius for cooking. Helen improvised everything, nothing was by the book, and, learning my tastes, she decided to try her hand at gefilte fish.
When she arrived each Thursday morning, we would set out for the Bronx to do some shopping together, our first stop being a fish shop on Lydig Avenue run by two Sicilian brothers who were as like as twins. The fishmongers were happy to give us carp, whitefish, and pike, but I had no idea how Helen, African-American, a good, churchgoing Christian, would manage with making such a Jewish delicacy. But her powers of improvisation were formidable, and she made magnificent gefilte fish (she called it “filter fish”), which, I had to acknowledge, was as good as my mother’s. Helen refined her filter fish each time she made it, and my friends and neighbors got a taste for it, too. So did Helen’s church friends; I loved to think of her fellow-Baptists gorging on gefilte fish at their church socials.
For my fiftieth birthday, in 1983, she made a gigantic bowl of it—enough for the fifty birthday guests. Among them was Bob Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books, who was so enamored of Helen’s gefilte fish that he wondered if she could make it for his entire staff.
When Helen died, after seventeen years of working for me, I mourned her deeply—and I lost my taste for gefilte fish. Commercially made, bottled gefilte fish, sold in supermarkets, I found detestable compared to Helen’s ambrosia.
But now, in what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life—so queasy that I am averse to almost every food, with difficulty swallowing anything except liquids or jellylike solids—I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish. I cannot eat more than two or three ounces at a time, but an aliquot of gefilte fish every waking hour nourishes me with much needed protein. (Gefilte-fish jelly, like calf’s-foot jelly, was always valued as an invalid’s food.)
Deliveries now arrive daily from one shop or another: Murray’s on Broadway, Russ & Daughters, Sable’s, Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, the 2nd Ave Deli—they all make their own gefilte fish, and I like it all (though none compares to my mother’s or Helen’s).
While I have conscious memories of gefilte fish from about the age of four, I suspect that I acquired my taste for it even earlier, for, with its abundant, nutritious jelly, it was often given to infants in Orthodox households as they moved from baby foods to solid food. Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, eighty-two years ago. ♦