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Chapter from 'A Land of Milk and Hummus: A Study of Israeli Culinary Culture'
Written by Yahil Zaban
By Todd Hasak-Lowy
Yuck: Gefilte Fish
What’s in gefilte fish that makes it the persona non grata of the Israeli kitchen? Why does every other person turn up his nose and scrunch up his face at the sound of its name? Why does it give rise to, even among those used to eating it, feelings of nausea, disdain, and fear? And why do others eagerly gobble down their portion, delightfully wiping the plate clean with chunks of challah and agreeing wholeheartedly and without batting an eye to take “another piece”? Gefilte fish divides the dining table in two. Into the minority who finish it with praise, who eat as a mist of nostalgia clouds their eyes, and the majority who can stand neither its taste nor its very presence on the table. Before you is the portrait of one of Israeli society’s most insane, cursed, and sad foods, a Jewish food whose citizenship has been revoked for nationalist reasons.
Gefilte fish, “stuffed fish” in Yiddish, is not terribly handsome. There’s something in its squashed and compressed shape, in its sponge-like texture, in its whitish grayness that does not attract the eye. A lukewarm piece, lacking all majesty, indifferent to being eaten or not. Added to this is the mucousy brine that surrounds the piece, which shakes like an amphibian yet to decide if it’s headed to land or sea, and crowns it with ambiguity . The traditional presentation of the piece inside the casing of the carp, an unattractive fish, or alternatively wrapped in a bit of its black skin, transforms the gefilte fish into an even uglier food. A whitish grayness living inside a grayish blackness.
On the other hand, the gefilte fish appears as a sort of surrealistic sculpture found not just on the plate but also on the border between imagination and reality, between the conscious and the repressed, and between longing and fear. Responsible for this feeling is the slice of cooked carrot, ”tzimmes”, that rests on the fish and which opens an orange eye and gazes at the diners who have come to annihilate it. Together with the quivering sauce it bestows surprising life upon the ground up and cooked fish. As if it weren’t enough to kill, chop up, grind, and cook the carp in order to finish it off once and for all. Joining all this is the regal purple of the chrain (horseradish-beetroot sauce) that spreads a bloody gown over the inelegant piece, such that by the end of eating the plate appears to have endured a pogrom.
The flavors of gefilte fish are also something of a challenge. The ground up mixture cooked in water couldn’t look less like a fish, and so it is with its taste as well, far from fishiness, far from the river. This is a fish that is not a fish. Its texture, too, is puzzling: soft, spongy, compressed, and cold. A patty that does not feel like a patty. And despite this, its blandness actually serves as a blank canvas for painters of flavor. The schools of gefilte fish preparation are many and varied. There are those who emphasize sweetness, those who prefer saltiness, and those who go for pepper. The submissive gefilte fish surrenders to the spices, obeys them, internalizes them and transforms them into its nature. The diner tastes the spices and the ratio between them more that he tastes the fish. A fish that is not a fish, a patty that isn’t a patty, a taste without taste. The gefilte fish is what it is not.
The true taste of gefilte fish comes not from the spices, nor from the chef’s expertise, nor from the grotesque physiognomy bestowed upon it by the cooked carrot eyeball and horseradish blood; the true taste of gefilte fish comes from its name. Whoever eats gefilte fish is eating more than a fish patty. He is eating Israeli society’s ridiculed, forbidden, and excluded language. He is eating a fish stuffed with Yiddish. Ge-fil-teh-feesh. The Ashkenazi “geh” is a Yiddish morpheme that signals a weak gargling from the esophagus. After it appears the stem of the word, “fil,” a limp f, which lazily encounters the tongue and from there it rises to the “teh,” that is expelled out rather than being swallowed up. The squishy “feesh” adds another limp f, which drenches the mouth and the rest of the organs in limpness. Foreign sounds to the Israeli body and the middle eastern palate.
In name and accent gefilte fish is the spurned ambassador of eastern European Jewry. A Jewry whose culture, traditions, language, and cuisine were disqualified and denounced as part of the cruel, painful process of negating the diaspora and inventing Israeliness. Israel understands its identity and imagines itself as a community through representative foods such as Arab salad (finely diced cucumber ,tomato bell peppers and onions), hummus, falafel, cottage cheese, and Bamba (peanut flavored snack consumed in vast quantities by Israeli children); and also by way of rejecting foods considered patently un-national like bacon, herring, and gefilte fish. Not that they aren’t eaten, they’re eaten and how, but they’re eaten without pride. Without national pride. More than this, whoever says “no” to gefilte fish, whoever turns up his nose and scrunches up his face, asserts he’s a true Israeli. Small children define their independence by rejecting food. Big children define their homeland’s independence by rejecting diasporic food.
Gefilte fish contains within itself the degeneracy of the diaspora as determined by the Zionist imagination: The diaspora transformed the Jews into a wretched, humiliated people who suffered from bodily deformations, sexual problems, and emotional disturbances. These diseases were caused by an incorrect lifestyle – for centuries the Jewish people didn’t live in its land. The cure for the diasporic diseases is simple: immigration to the Land of Israel. But what has been achieved by doing this if the new immigrants continue eating piroshky, herring, and kibbeh? If they continue putting into their bodies that changed territory morsels from the old one?
Gefilte fish is precisely a food of this sort. Food with a diasporic personality. First off, it’s a poor people’s food. Diasporic foods are always impoverished foods. In the diaspora most members of the Jewish communities were minorities, and like every minority they suffered from various economic restrictions and difficult living conditions. Thus there is no filet mignon on the traditional menu of the Jew from Marrakesh or the Jew from Vilnius. A large part of the sophistication of the poor person’s cuisine is hiding the poverty. A few bones, a handful of beans, and a lot of cheap potatoes and you have cholent, a few scraps of meat inside a lot of semolina and you have kibbeh. Gefilte fish is the pauper’s fish. Carp is cheap. Its many bones make eating it difficult, and therefore there is no choice but to grind up its meat along with its bones over and over in an exhausting process. An excess of bread is added to the ground-up fish. The bread is intended to enlarge the fish, to transform the miniscule piece of fish to a nice-looking patty that you return to the carp’s skin in a heroic effort to transform it into another fish, a fatty fish fit to be eaten in festive occasions (erev Shabbat). The fish isn’t only filled with itself but is cooked with itself as well. You add sugar, salt, and pepper to the broth, and a few carrot slices for the tzimmes and beet and horseradish roots for the chrain, and you’ve got a splendid dish for pennies. Gefilte fish is an impoverished Jewishness whose royal gown is made from holes and patches.
A fish filled with fish is a symptom of mental illness. Usually you fill something with something else. For example, you place rice inside seaweed, a handful of bread cubes, onion, and butter inside a turkey. The stuffed food symbolizes filling and fullness. But gefilte fish is an insane food. It fills itself. Have you ever eaten grape leaves stuffed with grape leaves? Ravioli filled with ravioli? When you wrap up wrapping paper it is not a gift. When you wrap a fish inside a fish you’re actually saying that this is a fish that’s swallowed itself, a fish that eats itself. One of the central pagan symbols, which emerged in Christianity as well later on, is two fish eating each other. A fish eating a fish is a symbol of life’s cyclical nature: the diners of today are the dined upon of tomorrow. But gefilte fish is a fish that swallows itself, an infinity collapsing into itself. By the same measure the diasporic Jewry that eats this dish is a Jewry that eats itself. A Jewry that gobbles itself up to death.
From a sexual perspective the gefilte fish also has more than its share of problems. Its very flimsiness, softness, sponginess positions it as a food symbolizing the pitiful and limp body of the diaspora Jews. The absence of bones from the fish eases the eating on the one hand, but on the other hand presents itself as a food with no backbone, a food for old people with weak teeth who are unable to bite into life if you don’t grind it up for them at least twice in advance. This wretchedness is served cold and pale, so far from the warm, tanned body of the Israeli sabra.
This diasporic food is dangerous. The innocent Israelis who eat gefilte fish are filling their mouths with a diasporic pleasure that comes at a price: the corruption of the lofty, proud Zionist body that lives in agricultural harmony with the land. Zionism’s muscles are supposed to be composed of oranges and scrambled eggs that grew and were laid in Israel’s orchards and hen houses. The flabby, diasporic gut is made from carps and chicken gizzards. And just as it’s impossible to imagine gefilte fish and hummus sharing a single plate, so it’s impossible to eat the two without suffering from a split personality. The danger is even greater for he who is not counted among the eastern European Jews. Israelis descended from Turks, Greeks, Iraqis, and Egyptians ancestors know from a young age that the consumption of gefilte fish is liable to transform them into pale and phlegmatic eastern Europeans. Whoever enjoys gefilte fish betrays the memory of truly stuffed foods, of dolmades, of kibbeh, of mussaka.
So why do we eat gefilte fish nevertheless? Why in every supermarket is there a long aisle of jars in whose turbid waters float balls of fish? Why on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach do hundreds of Jews gather in long lines outside “Jewish” (that is, not Israeli) restaurants to purchase this precious commodity? And why do all manner of crazy people decide to make trouble and enslave their strength and energy to prepare fish that half of the guests won’t agree to eat?
Because the gefilte fish is a living fossil. It curates inside of itself an array of tastes, cooking customs, and rituals that have almost disappeared from the face of the earth. Because whoever eats gefilte fish overcomes the shame of mother and father, of grandma and grandpa, of those same immigrants, diasporic Jews, who were unable to say goodbye to the food of the lost shtetl, to the lost memory of the shtetl itself, its very language and way of life. Eating gefilte fish is to go back in time, to the past found outside written history and preserved in the words and sounds of yesterday that refuse to take leave of the mouth.
Dr. Yahil Zaban, Tel Aviv University, his main research subjects are Jewish food culture, food and literature, and Jewish enlightenment literature, author of "The Choicest Meal: Food and Sexuality in Jewish Enlightenment Literature", Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2014 and "A Land of Milk and Hummus: A Study of Israeli Culinary Culture", Afik Books, 2016.