I’ve been cooking and experimenting with Ashkenazi recipes since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But I was ignoring one of the most well-known dishes, gefilte fish. I never liked it as a kid but with all this time on my hands I was curious to know if I could prepare and season the fish to make it an enjoyable culinary experience with my loved ones.
Until the pandemic I only had gefilte fish from a jar. I didn’t like it pre-made when I first tried the minced fish and to this day the feeling has remained. The thought of eating it reminded me of sitting in my bubbe’s apartment as the taste of the fish’s acidity blended with the smell of dust and old papers in her dining room. I would try to take a few bites, wanting to like it, before realizing I needed to eat something (anything) else.
Though it’s not enjoyable to feed people something you don’t like yourself, I became less apprehensive when I learned there are different ways to prepare gefilte fish. I tried making the loaf version and was surprised at how moist and flavourful it was. The overpowering taste of brine was gone, but something else unexpected happened. The dish was easier to make. All I had to do was blend, bake, and slice it.
As I cooked and read more, I learned about the contentious debates surrounding the Gefilte Line, a line separating Eastern Europe into two sections: one that uses sugar, and the other that uses pepper. If your family was from Poland you were horrified that Lithuanian Jews used pepper, and vice versa.The recipe I used was from The Gefilte Manifesto which, very diplomatically, had both in equal amounts (but I prefer only using pepper).
Over these last few months I’ve had extra time to refine the recipe and test it out on my immediate family. This allows me to fine tune the ingredients for when we can have large family gatherings again. In the interim, my summer of 2020 was filled with afternoons sitting in my backyard with my parents; trying my newest modifications with more herbs, sometimes too much pepper, or different types of horseradish, and planning for the next recipe to try.
It’s now one of my favourite dishes to offer my family, and even for making care packages. Since this recipe is portioned to feed lots of people at big family dinners it’s been strange to cook it for only two or three people. I’ve been making all these different iterations of gefilte fish that my house of three would never get through. Which is why I delivered it to family outside of my bubble. Each time I made a new version I drove across the city to my uncle’s house and delivered the tasty package. We would sit far apart in his backyard and eat out of our separate and sanitized containers. He always gave me feedback. My uncle often made something too and we would go home with traditional quenelle-style gefilte fish or fresh vegetables from his garden. Though I prefer loaf-style gefilte fish for how easy and quick it is to prepare and cook, his traditional recipe, which takes three hours to cook, is much better.
I’ve learned to love the controversial gefilte fish, but I’m still trying to perfect my recipe. Once it is safe to have large family dinners again I’ll hopefully have refined it into a dish I’ll be proud to serve.
Header image by Orly Zebak. Photos courtesy of Gemma Johnson.
Gemma Johnson has had many lives as a writer, urban planner, and cook. She has part Ashkenazi heritage with family originally from Belarus and Romania. Her current quarantine projects include cooking up a storm, creating a graphic novel of family stories, and procrastinating on these projects.