It’s colorless. It’s offensively lumpy. And it often sits suspended in a broth of murky “gel.”
"It may taste like cat food, but that's why I love it,'' Peter Shelsky, one of the co-owners of Shelsky's fish store in Brooklyn, declared in a 2014 New York Times article. ''It's like, why do Hawaiians love Spam so much?''
When it comes to debates about potentially alienating foods—brussels sprouts, cilantro, and pickles among them—there’s really only one worth having: The gefilte fish one. After all, is any other food so legendarily divisive? The stuff is so loathed that it’s practically become a stand-alone punchline. “Gefilte fish.” See? Hilarious.
Personally, though, feigning indifference is the closest I’ll ever get to the full-blown hatred of my peers. Because...I love gefilte fish. Yes. It’s true. I like its cartoonish blob shape. I like how it tastes (plain, and un-fishy). Most of all, I like that it’s familiar and nostalgia-inducing, reminding me of Passovers spent at my childhood home.
I like it so much, in fact, that I often worry houseguests will peer into my pantry cupboards, spy my excessive year-round stash, and, horrified, run from my apartment screaming.
As the pantry stash indicates, I'm guilty of partaking of the stuff in its modern, manufactured state. But I'm well aware there's much more to gefilte fish than the current jarred iteration. It's a dish packed with heritage, tradition, and memories—especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And so, if only to think up a hypothetical retort to deliver to those hypothetical guests of mine, I set about to learn more about it.
Here’s what I found out:
Gefilte fish translates from Yiddish as "stuffed fish." That’s because the dish, which is made by grinding up deboned fish (usually carp, whitefish, mullet, and pike) and adding filler ingredients like breadcrumbs, eggs, and vegetable scraps, was traditionally stuffed back into the skin of a whole fish; then, the entire thing was baked or poached. Since the 19th century, however, it’s been eaten instead in the form of fist-sized, round or oval-shaped patties.
Interestingly enough, gefilte fish isn't just for Jews. In Poland, it's also eaten by many Catholics on Christmas Eve and on Holy Sunday (this isn't quite so surprising when you consider the cultural proximity of Polish and Jewish food).
That’s all good and nice, but still I wondered: Why did people want to eat this thing, initially?
Most likely, they didn't. Gefilte fish was, at first, a dish of convenience. On the Sabbath, religious Jews are not permitted to separate bones from flesh, so it was convenient to grind the fish sans bones. It was also a dish of faith. The fact that these Jewish families could, in fact, eat fish allowed them to more legitimately sanctify special, holy days.
And it was a dish of resourcefulness. Using the gefilte fish recipe, families who were unable to afford an entire fish to feed all of their children were able to stretch the limits of just one. The poorer the family, the more breadcrumbs or matzo meal they might add to the mixture.
As was later canonized in Barbara Cohen’s memorable children’s book, “The Carp in the Bathtub,” gefilte fish was a dish of sacrifice, too. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Jews in New York City would keep a fish in their tiny tenement apartments in order to prepare the dish, giving up their one and only bathtub (or, in many cases, the bathtub they shared with neighbors) so it would be fresh for Passover or Shabbat.
And lastly, it was a dish of wisdom. As with many traditions from many cultures, there's an element of practicality at play here: Horseradish, which is typically served alongside gefilte fish, actually has an antimicrobial component. If the fish was in any way contaminated, there was always an insurance policy in the form of a condiment.
But while gefilte fish’s past is pretty fascinating, its present is...suspended in gel slime and clouded by an unsavory reputation. What, then, is its future?
Well, the good news is that several new companies have devoted themselves to reimagining the dish in a way that’s accessible to newer generations. For Jeffrey Yoskowitz, one of the co-founders of artisanal gefilte fish company The Gefilteria, that slimy broth was a sign of just how bad things had become...and how much they needed to change.
"I grew up eating fresh, homemade gefilte fish from my grandma. I always had access to the good stuff," Yoskowitz told Food & Wine in a phone interview. "But my friends knew gefilte fish and so many other Jewish foods as these things that came in boxes from the supermarket."
Harkening back to earlier, more traditional recipes while paving the way for a modern twist, The Gefilteria’s version of the now-classic Passover appetizer uses better-sourced fish, gluten-free ingredients, and no carp whatsoever. And grey blobs, be gone: To keep things colorful, Yoskowitz and his team have thoughtfully included a "layer of pink" containing steelhead trout and salmon.
"The way my friends were talking about gefilte fish, that just felt like a sad way to think about one's own food tradition. About things that do have a rich, interesting, beautiful background, and that can actually be delicious," Yoskowitz continued. “So many families took gefilte fish seriously for so long. It meant something to them. I want it to mean something to people again.”
Yes, it might taste like cat food. But that’s why we all love it. I bet, if you dig deep enough, even cat food’s got an endearing backstory worth exploring.