Gefilte Fish in America

A history of the Jewish fish product.

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What Does the Future Hold?

By the 21st century, two distinct kinds of gefilte fish survived: the edible and the iconic. No longer at war with chop suey and the like, gefilte fish encountered a new set of threats. The resurgent kosher food industry, with an unlimited supply of modern products, diminished the need and desire for gefilte fish. In addition, a younger generation, raised on bottled blobs of fish and a proclivity for irony, abandoned the food item for kitschy t-shirts with labels like, "Gefilte Fish: The Hot Dog of the Sea," and ditties like "The Gefilte Fish Song" that rib the habits of American Jews and its love affair with gefilte.

Can gefilte fish survive the double-edged sword of culinary variety and irony? "Of course," claims Zachary Schenker of the New York kosher grocery Supersol. "It's gefilte fish. It is as Jewish as chicken soup." Food historians are less convinced. While Joan Nathan describes the resurgence in gefilte fish-making by Russian Jewish immigrants, she also laments the broad generational divide and the fact that so many Sephardic Jews "hate gefilte fish. Absolutely hate it."

In an age of prosperity, irony, and variety, gefilte fish exists in a depleted form. But as Zachary Schenker recalls, "The best part about gefilte fish, as with all these heimish foods is that it comes from garbage? We mixed it all together and boom! All of a sudden you had beautiful wonderful gefilte fish."

In its 4000-year-old history, the Jewish people have seen prosperity and poverty. Grasping the crumbs, however malodorous, of a culinary tradition equipped to handle both, might not be such a bad idea.

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Tamara Mann

Tamara Mann is a Ph.D. Candidate in American History at Columbia University and a freelance writer.