Tale of Two Gefiltes

Gefilte Fish is Being Revived — But in Very Different Ways

By Devra Ferst

Published September 11, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page
Video: Nate Lavey


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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.