At its origins, gefilte fish was a perfect example of peasant fare, what the Italians call cucina povera, a cuisine designed to extend limited resources across as many table settings as possible. Starting in the Middle Ages until about 60 years ago, balebustes, or skilled homemakers, visited fishmongers to purchase inexpensive fish (some of which lived as family pets in the bathtub before meeting their fate in the kitchen). If they couldn’t afford that, they purchased ground scraps of bottom-feeding fish and mixed them with matzo meal or egg, oil and sometimes onion, stretching the fish to feed their large families.
From the 1960s onward, gefilte fish served in Jewish homes often came from a jar — fist-sized fish balls swimming in a sea of yellow or beige jelly. High on the “ick factor,” as Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation and author of “The Mensch Chef” (Clarkson Potter, 2002) said.
Now, a handful of culinary mavericks in New York City are seeking to elevate gefilte fish’s lowly reputation, albeit with two very different approaches. Riding the Brooklyn artisanal food wave, The Gefilteria company turns out small batches of kosher gefilte fish and sells them online and at weekend food markets. Kutsher’s Tribeca, which describes itself as an “American Jewish bistro” in Lower Manhattan, has created a neo-gefilte, reminiscent of a quenelle, the French poached fish patty.
New York’s nascent gefilte fish experiment is but one component of today’s Jewish culinary revival. House smoked pastrami (and even tongue!) is stuffed into artisan sandwiches in the country’s culinary capitals. Kasha varnishkes is a staple item on the menu of ABC Kitchen, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant. And even Eleven Madison Park, lauded as one of the greatest restaurants in the country, served an egg cream for dessert in the past year — finished with olive oil, of course.
Yet as the food world watches to see whether Jewish cuisine can be elevated to haute fare, gefilte fish stands out from the pack as an unlikely crossover dish. “Among Americans, fishy things are generally not enjoyed,” Davis said.
Can the gray fish ball both beloved and reviled by Jews find a following among picky American palates? And perhaps more important, should one of Jewish cuisine’s most haimish dishes move away from its humble roots in order to gain culinary relevance? For the trio behind The Gefilteria — 20-somethings Jeffrey Yoskowitz, Liz Alpern and Jackie Lilinshtein — the point is not to create a gourmet gefilte necessarily, but to re-create the gefilte fish their ancestors ate, with sustainably sourced ingredients. The “Gefilte Manifesto” on their website proclaims: “We of the Gefilteria plan to bring our foods out of the jar and back to the street, to the pushcarts where we began, to the flavors of the people.”
On a late August morning, I accompanied Yoskowitz to a Hasidic fish monger in Brooklyn to pick up ground whitefish, pike and salmon. As we returned to Yoskowitz’s apartment, Alpern greeted us on the tall brownstone stoop. “Welcome to gefilte world, it’s the world we’re living in!” she said.