Friday, April 18, 2014

Language Failures and the Gefilte Fish Shortage

This past Tuesday, after upwards of 60 traditional and supplemental Seders (think "Chocolate" or "Feminist" Seder), for the first time I hosted and lead my own.  In attendance were a couple Jews with past experience, and several non-identifying friends who were vaguely aware of a thing called a "Seder," but unclear on what it consisted of. 

My invitation promised my famous Sephardic Charoset (with apricots, dates, pistachios, and spices), and an assortment of required and traditional foods, including gefilte fish.  The latter was a puzzler: "what kind of fish is that?" they asked. 

I like gefilte fish, but I realized that to the uninitiated, it has little to recommend itself, and in fact I fear it may be impossible to describe this dish in a way that makes it sound enticing.  Here are a few of the explanations I tried:

Sweet Fish Cake
Whitefish Loaf
Fish Mashed with Matzah Meal and Spices
Jarred Fish Ball in a Jellied Broth

Describing the color and consistency was even worse, though I guess it's hard to make a sale on anything that contains the phrase "jellied broth."  To be fair, the jellied broth isn't a requirement, though I've known connoisseurs who insist that gefilte fish in jellied broth is more flavorful.  Most times I've eaten that type, it's been bought as a mistake, served with a thick layer of stomach-wrenching jelly, our almost worse, random gelatinous chunks, hidden in pockets on the underside of the fish, only uncovered when they slither along the tongue.

This year I bought several different jars, including in broth, in jellied broth, original, and premium whitefish (always freshwater, almost never from the sea: can you imagine a mahi mahi or swordfish gefilte fish?), with the intention of doing a taste-test. Newsflash: the differences were subtle to non-existant.

Prior to the Seder I opened a number of the jars.  To handle the jelly, I poured the whole jar into a collander, and then thoroughly rinsed it with cold running water.  The jelly was very persistent.  It did not readily pass through the colander, and once it was in the sink, it sat there, clogging the drain. 

Once de-jellied, I put them in a serving dish with some grape tomatoes.  When it came to the festive-meal portion of the Seder, each person gamely tried at least a small piece, despite their misgivings.  A couple declared that it was "inoffensive," and a few even took second pieces, once they were informed that it's mainly a vehicle for horseradish.  No one complained that about the jelly, but there were still several people who found it inedible for its "bland but unappealing taste," or who found the "mealy texture" incongruous with the fish flavor.  Even among Jewish friends, with the proper context, I know very few who love gefilte fish, or would have any desire to eat it outside of Passover.

Despite this, the New York Times and other media outlets are reporting a shortage of gefilte fish.  I had no idea it was such a hotly sought after commodity, and would have assumed that demand at this time of year could be predicted and managed, but evidently the lingering ice on lakes and ponds following this winter's polar vortex have created a shortage of the preferred fish.  I like my gefilte fish just fine, but if these articles have piqued your interest, let me know, I might just have a few jars I'd be willing to part with for the right price.

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