A new sustainable, young, hip food pushcart was launched this week in fashionable Brooklyn, serving - you could have never guessed it - gefilte fish!
The three founders of the venture that goes under the perfect name Gefilteria, Liz Alpern, Jackie Lilinshtein and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, plan to serve borscht, kvass and black & white cookies alongside the gefilte fish.
Each of those Ashkenazi poor-people’s foods get their own updated interpretation while still showing due respect to tradition. Their ginger kvass is live-cultured and naturally fermented, and their black & white cookies are more like sticks, long and narrow, so every bite is both black & white.
All three founders grew up in Ashkenazi homes with different attitudes toward gefilte fish. At Liz’s home jarred gefilte fish showed up on the holiday table, she told me in an email exchange. ”And I'm fairly certain I never even tried it until I went away to college."
“Jeffrey grew up in a family that went searching high and low for good gefilte every holiday," she added. "Jacqueline’s parents came from Russia and these foods were much more a part of her daily life.”
As to what inspired them to choose these specific hard-core Ashkenazi staples, Liz said: “The pushcart was one of our earliest inspirations. We loved the image of Jewish street food and the community interactions that surround it. That said, we also feel connected to foods with a purpose- foods that are served at the holidays, foods that are labor intensive and symbolic. The Gefilteria is a combination of both of those sources of inspiration - and it isn't so different than the deli revival that is going on now.”
“We want people to feel empowered to reclaim their holiday table and to serve things that they can be proud of," she said.
The three plan to sell their boutique gefilte fish loaves around New York City for Passover, together with two horseradish relishes, beets and carrots. They will also sell DIY kits for making gefilte fish in your own kitchen “urging all of us to bring back the home preparation of these critical foods.” Later in the spring they plan to sell their foods in festivals around NYC.
The Gefilteria’s gefilte fish loaves are made with whitefish, pike and salmon. And, in keeping with current food ideals of their prospect clientele and their own, all fish are sustainably sourced.
Liz used to work as an assistant to the one and only Joan Nathan, and the three used Joan’s book extensively as they started their research. Their recipes evolved into something way different from the original. For example, they bake their gefilte fish instead of boiling it.
The gefilte fish has its large community of devotees in the U.S. and I love the way young people take a very traditional simple food that is usually made only by Jewish grandmothers (and here’s how) and give it a new life, encouraging a whole new generation to discover the gefilte fish as well.
But we can’t ignore the fact that the gefilte fish is a matter of controversy. While some people who I’ve told about the Gefilteria got really excited - and that includes everyone in my family - others grimaced and changed the subject by turning to the old joke:
”How to recognize a gefilte fish in the ocean? It will be the one with the carrot on its head.”
I must be the only Jew who didn’t know that one.
“There is a growing interest in food in the U.S. right now in general," Liz told me. “Deli has been gaining popularity for some time now, but we believe the moment has arrived for some of the less obvious items. Based on the feedback we are getting already, we know that people will accept it here.”
This kind of venture could have never taken off in Israel, where Ashkenazi food has been the subject of nothing but jokes for years. In the food fight between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israel, the Ashkenazi surrendered a long time ago.
As someone who grew up in a mixed family, half Iraqi and half Polish, where the gefilte fish was the one border you could not cross, I have to admit I was always intimidated by it.
Just how intimidated? Let’s just say that growing up in a country where wars and running to shelters were part of my childhood, it was still the gefilte fish, and even more - its jelly - that scared me the most.
My father (yes, the Iraqi side) used to chase me around the house with a bowl full of the grayish, trembling jelly, threatening to make me eat it if I misbehaved.
I never tasted gefilte fish and I don’t intend to. But this dread apparently skips a generation, as gefilte fish is one of the only dishes that all three of my sons absolutely love.
So if you've never made gefilte fish before, but want to give it some practice before the holiday, try out my friend Joan Nathan’s gefilte fish paté recipe.