Why homemade gefilte fish is becoming an endangered species at Passover
As if preparing for Passover wasn’t enough work and worry, now comes a gefilte fish crisis.
This might not be as consequential as, say, the Atlantic cod crisis. But for the diminishing few of us who still patshke (slave away) in the kitchen before Passover to make traditional gefilte fish from scratch, it’s definitely troubling.
What’s happened is that the freshwater fish used in making it — that tried-and-true trifecta of pike, carp, and whitefish — has become so hard to find and so expensive that homemade gefilte fish could someday soon be an endangered species. I worry we Jews are being priced out of our tradition.
“It’s all about supply and demand,” said Mike Machado, purchasing director of Boston Sword & Tuna, a fish wholesaler. “The species aren’t indigenous to this area. A lot of the whitefish nowadays, it goes to New York, which has the highest contingent of Jewish people.”
Also, apparently, the highest contingent of Jewish people willing to futz with raw fish in advance of an already labor-intensive holiday — grinding it, mixing it with eggs and matzo meal, shaping it into balls, poaching them in a pot of water with vegetables and the fish heads and bones. To say nothing of living with the smell of fish in the house for another week or so.
Making gefilte fish “is like one of those things a lot of people don’t do anymore,” said Kim Marden, co-owner of Captain Marden’s Seafood in Wellesley. “I compare it to shad roe. How many people line up for shad roe anymore? Not many.”
On the rare occasion when a customer requests freshwater fish for a Jewish holiday, Marden said, “we refer them to Wulf’s.”
Wulf’s Fish Market in Brookline is the Boston area’s gefilte fish final frontier — the only Boston-area supplier left, according to everyone I’ve asked in the fish wholesale and retail world. Wulf’s brings the fish in from the Great Lakes in Canada twice a year — in the fall for Rosh Hashanah and the spring for Passover — and I’ve watched the prices climb so high that, last year, when I told my mother-in-law I’d paid $120, “I nearly fainted,” she reminded me last week.
My mother-in-law, Debbie Israel, has a stake in the future of my gefilte fish because I use her recipe for gefilte fish loaf (not balls), which she got from her late friend Ann.
It comes from our hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a province that is nicknamed “the land of 100,000 lakes,” and so could also be nicknamed “the land of pike, carp, and whitefish.” In Winnipeg, this fish is considered as pedestrian as hamburger meat, available at most fish markets and supermarket chains. My mother had her own private supplier — a fisherman’s wife — who delivered it, filleted, to her apartment hours after it was caught.
How much does fish cost in Winnipeg? As I write this, frozen fillets are selling for $6.98 a pound at Gimli Fish Market, where my mother-in-law shops. What did I pay? With no other recourse, I bought 3 pounds of pike and whitefish at Wulf’s earlier this month and paid $124.09. This is because Wulf’s sells customers the whole fish, and cuts, skins, and grinds it on demand, explained owner Mike Geraty.
“For a customer to get 2 pounds of ground fish, you have to order 6 pounds of whole fish,” he said. (The price of freshwater fish fluctuates, but a week and a half ago it ranged from $11.98-$14.98 a pound.) “The price is for the investment of time in processing the order. Prior to the holiday it’s 100-hour weeks for all of us.”
“It is not inexpensive,” conceded the sympathetic man who answered Wulf’s phone a couple of weeks ago, after he told me how much it would cost and I let out my annual geshrey (Yiddish for “scream”). When I bought it for Passover last spring, I gave more than a geshrey. I got into a yelling match with the man who handed me my order.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “That’s insane!”
“That’s what it cost,” he said, his face getting red. “We have to bring it in from Canada.”
“Lobster is cheaper than this,” I said. “I come from Canada. It costs nothing there. This is shmatedike fish.” (I came up with this word on the spot, riffing on the word “shmate,” which means “rag” and turning it into an adjective with the suffix “dike.” Necessity is the mother of invention.)
He didn’t like that. “People steal our fish off the trucks!” he thundered. “You know what this costs us? One of these days we’re not going to be here anymore.”
Over the years I’ve tried various workarounds, including substituting less-expensive fish. Last fall, I consulted Carl Fantasia at New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, who recommended hake and snapper. I served it at Rosh Hashanah, along with my usual fish from Wulf’s. Every guest but one preferred Wulf’s for the consistency and the more pronounced flavor. It tasted more like their grandmothers’ gefilte fish.
I’ve tried buying smaller quantities of fish and baking it in smaller loaf pans; adding a chopped tomato to the fish mixture to make it go further; and serving smaller pieces to my guests. On several occasions I’ve even schlepped it from Winnipeg to Boston, frozen, in my suitcase. But this can be perilous, as my sister Judy discovered one year when she flew home to Houston from Winnipeg and her suitcase went to Calgary instead. It arrived a day later, the fish still cool. She made and served it anyway ( “I wasn’t going to throw it out”), though she knew it was risky. “Nobody died,” she reported.
A couple of weeks ago I learned that the angry shopkeeper at Wulf’s was not bluffing: Wulf’s is closing the market in May and opening a wholesale facility on the Boston Fish Pier. Geraty said he’s committed to “serving our holiday fish store customers for the next 90 years” and will still offer freshwater fish, selling it flash-frozen.
Will it taste the same? Who knows? The bigger question is: Given the hassle and expense of preparing gefilte fish, why do I even bother?
Because gefilte fish from a jar tastes awful. Because I can’t imagine a Passover without my mother-in-law’s recipe for fish loaf, typed on a piece of paper so splattered with cooking oil from years past that it’s translucent — just like the fried onions must be, she instructs me.
Because every year I mix up the ingredients in a huge wooden bowl my grandmother brought over from Russia, with a chip out of the bottom so it’s unsteady, and use her very old hakmeser, or chopping knife with a handle, that curiously resembles an Inuit ulu.
Because at the Passover table in many homes, gefilte fish is as expected as Elijah the prophet. One year our family had to break with tradition and miss my friend Amy’s seder. “That’s OK,” she said, when I told her we weren’t coming. “But can you send the gefilte fish anyway?”