Friday Night Fish-ticuffs

by | Feb 27, 2024 | Curriculum, Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

When thinking of the relationship between a people and their food, there are usually three dynamics at play.  Geography determines what’s available to eat.  The people’s culture decides what, among those things to eat, is considered “food.” And finally, there is cuisine, which determines how that “food” is prepared.

In the many cohorts of students in Chosen Food, our Jewish food culture course, we examined how this “food triangle” featured in the lives of Jews of communities from Kelowna to Kolkata. What we soon discovered that there is a potential fourth side to the triangle, which I guess would make it into a “food square.”  Many of the dishes we regarded as quintessentially Jewish were not just a reflection of place, culture and cuisine, but also of economic hardship.

The best example of this would be gefilte (lit. “stuffed”) fish. This dish started with a cheap and plentiful fish – carp – and, after carefully removing its skin and bones, one would chop up the fish flesh and mix it with matzah meal (or bread) and onions.  Once seasoned, the mix would then be stuffed back into the skin, sewed in and roasted, although cooks eventually move on to poaching.  This laborious technique would stretch a small fish to feed a large family.

This technique also eliminated the possibility that Shabbat diners would separate the bones from the poached carp steaks, and thus violate the prohibition of borer on Shabbat.  (Before you propose halakhah (Jewish law) and/or kashrut law as a potential fifth and sixth side to the square, making it a pentagon or hexagon, one could rightfully argue that kashrut is a subset of halakhah.  A similar argument could be made that kashrut is very much part of Jewish culture. So, the square prevails!)

Fish on Friday night goes back to Talmudic times, and because Middle Eastern fish were particularly boney, separating fish from bones became a pre-requisite and a common pre-Shabbat activity.

In the early 1800s, the first sugar beet refineries were established in Poland.  With this, sugar became cheap and accessible – and found its way into all kinds of dishes, including Friday night fish… much to the consternation and disgust of Ukrainians who preferred more pepper and vinegar in their geflite fish.  It is thus no coincidence that the line on the map dividing the sweet gefilte fish lovers and savoury gefilte fish lovers is the same line that distinguishes between two distinct dialects of Yiddish.  And I’m sure these dialects were deployed in colourful ways to describe just how disgusting their gefilte fish was in comparison to ours, which was delicious…

Fast forward to the early 1900s.  When these folks left Galicia, Ukraine and other points east and landed on North American shores, they brought their food (and food fights) with them.  Carp was still cheap, but in America, things were done differently.

Barbara Cohen’s 1972 classic The Carp in the Bathtub describes a moment when tradition began to give way to more modern sensibilities.  Mama brought home a live carp and kept it in the bathtub for a week so it would be extra fresh and flavourful when served at the Seder. American-born (and nine-year-old) Leah and her brother, Harry, felt differently.  They sensed that this season’s carp was special.  He was friendlier and shinier and more bright-eyed than past carps. Once they named him Joe, the jig was up.  And yet, Joe was still served at Passover despite an escape attempt.  “We cried ourselves to sleep that night,” Leah reported, “and the next night, too. Then we made ourselves stop crying. After that, we felt as if we were years older than Mama and Papa.”  One can feel the generational shift in that observation, the softening of the heart followed by a subsequent hardening – until Papa brought home a cat.

By the time Leah and her brother Harry grew into adults, most North American Jews were buying their gefilte fish in jars, blithely unaware of the gastronomic (and linguistic) rift that divided Ashkenazim for decades.  And why?  Because Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz, the founder of the brand, came from Lithuania, so the gefilte fish his company packaged and sold to the Jewish masses were savoury. Most North Americans just figured that that’s how gefilte fish was supposed to taste.

But us folks from Poland know what’s what! And so, the fight goes on!

The cover art for the children's book The Carp in the Bathtub, featuring the narrator, her mother and the carp in question in bold colours.