Chatting with Herring Young Gun Jacob Frommer
Jacob Frommer loves everything herring. But he’s far from your quintessential old man at kiddush. A 26 year old working in education technology, Frommer began trying herring as a way to connect to Eastern European Judaism of yore and quickly fell in love — seeking out the best herring wherever he goes from shul kiddush to famous dairy delis.
The New Jersey native lives in downtown Manhattan, and while he was raised Modern Orthodox he calls The Big Lebowski his “other bible.” He has not taken the subway in six months, and instead walks or bikes everywhere. He spends the money he saved on cabs, beer, and, of course, herring.
So, you’re a herring expert?
For my age, I’m an expert, but compared to other people, I’m an aficionado. It’s a very small field, you’re frankly up against old Jewish men. They know what they’ve been eating, but they don’t know about herring. They know the difference between schmaltz and matjes, but I’d say I know more than the average old man at your kiddush who’s eating herring.
I love thinking about herring. But similar to how I got into chopped liver, I didn’t like it at first. I just kept trying and trying because I knew that the older generations liked it — I’ve always had a lot of respect for the older generations — so I knew that there was something there that I wasn’t seeing. It didn’t take as long as chopped liver.
What’s your favorite style of herring?
That’s a tough one. Listen, matjes herring is unbelievable. There’s nothing like a good matjes herring. Let me back up: A really good piece of herring allows you to taste the fish itself. And there are a lot of herrings out there that will drown out the flavor of the fish with additives. And that’s fine, because it’s delicious, everyone loves cream, everyone loves a good wine-sauce — whatever it is. And everyone loves jalapeno, that’s like the hottest new thing in this tiny little world of herring.
In the Jewish world, herring may be most conspicuously found at synagogue. Is herring at shul kiddushes generally good?
Depends what town you’re in. In Englewood, it even depends what kiddush you’re at! If you’re at the main kiddush, it’s obviously not going to be so good. The smaller the kiddush, the better it is generally. I just know the guys in Englewood, because that’s where I grew up, and some of those guys take their herring really seriously. Maybe 10 of them.
* Do you make your own?
That’s the biggest question of them all. My best friend Eric Moed and I have been on this journey together. We figured, you know what, let’s make our own for friends and family. We looked at sourcing herring: we were literally pulling New York Times articles from 1984 that your bubbe wrote about how to make herring.
The first problem we ran into is that it’s next to impossible to get a whole herring. We found these fillets in oil, and they were really hard to work with, because you want a herring right out of the sea, which is just salted. Once it’s oiled, you’re basically just putting a sauce on, it’s not really soaking up the flavor. So eventually, we were buying herrings. Very expensive. We were spending $10-$15 on one herring. That’s like spending $30 on a can of tuna, and that’s all that we could find.
How difficult is it to source herring in New York City?
I tried to get Acme to tell me where they source their herring from, they wouldn’t tell me. Chances are they’ve been working with the same guy for 30 years and my guess is that they get it from Scandinavia, right below the Arctic. Everyone’s getting it from there. And with that you need to order a ton. You need to literally order actual tons. There’s something called river herring, which is different than ocean herring: they’re smaller, less fatty, and 95% of that herring caught in Canada and Maine is used for lobster meat. So I contacted a lobsterman that I know, and he just started laughing at me. People don’t give a shit about someone doing 20 pounds of herring.
How protective are herring-mongers of their recipes?
They’re not mean about it. The people I’ve spoken to are very nice. They’ve explained a lot of things, but when it comes to actually apprenticing them, they smell competition, and they’re standoffish. And that is completely justified. My best option is finding a bubbe who does this for fun!
You expressed in an email that herring is an “undervalued and underappreciated delicacy of the sea.” Why don’t people like herring?
Because it’s just not of the times, it’s just not a cool food to eat anymore. In Eastern Europe it was necessity, because back then it was a cheap fish, fatty fish that stayed for a long time because it was salted. It’s not a necessity anymore, but our grandparents and parents are eating it. I think it’s not just because they’re used to it; they like how it makes them feel. I think our disconnect with our past is very much tied up in why people don’t like herring, and I think the reason why Eric and I got into herring is because we have absolute respect for the older generations. All we talk about is being old Jews together, eating herring and liver on our porch… We’re literally trying to eat our way there.
And why won’t people go and try it? Because it’s a disgusting slimy fish at shul, that’s why.
What’s the Best herring in New York?
I don’t know if I want to tell you this, but I cried when I ate Benz’s for the first time, because it was so good. It’s right off of Eastern Parkway in wherever that really religious part of Brooklyn is, right around the corner from 770 [Chabad Lubavitch headquarters]. I walked in — I have pictures — they had full refrigerators full of 50 different types of herring, and I didn’t know what to do. I bought every single flavor, bought a package of Tam Tams, sat down on Eastern Parkway, and it was the greatest piece of herring I ever had in my life.
What do you do when you’re not obsessing over herring?
Well, obsessing over beer and women. I work in education technology, I put tablets in classrooms. That’s what I do.