There is nothing that divides the world of Jewish food as much as gefilte fish — which is a matter of some significance, now that Passover is upon us.
In Israel, it “was plainly abhorred by almost everyone,” Yotam Ottolenghi writes in “Jerusalem.”
“Sweet, grey and smeared with gelatinous gunk, it was considered a typical remnant of the old Ashkenazi world that was best left behind in Eastern Europe.”
On the other hand, the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote an ode to gefilte fish just months before he died, in 2015, reviling the commercial variety and extolling the dish as made by his mother and later by his housekeeper. He ended it with a gentle lyrical sigh: “Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it.”
I’m definitely with Sacks. For me, it is a dish about life, love and family. When I eat good gefilte fish, I taste the flavors of my childhood and the family kitchen. The taste of Israel and Britain, thanks to three remarkable British ladies: my mother, my grandmother and Florence Greenberg, the doyenne of British Jewish cooking.
I’ve seen them in kitchens in London and New York, Tel Aviv and Melbourne. Our mother’s was a sort of dirty beige, and like all the others it was well thumbed, and rather sticky. It was “Florence Greenberg’s Cookery Book” — better known simply as The Florence Greenberg — a small thick volume that no British Jewish household of a certain vintage would be without.
Entire generations of British Jewish brides, in the United Kingdom and abroad, reared families on the polite principles of cooking introduced by Greenberg: simple, precise, comprehensive and rather boring. It was vintage British cooking at its worst: Lots of boiling and steaming (vegetables, meat, fish — basically everything), without too much concern about flavor. There was salt and pepper for savory, sugar and cinnamon for sweet, and a dash of ginger or nutmeg for real excitement!
To be fair, the book did not always reflect actual tastes, but rather like British food in general, it was influenced by war and rationing.
It first appeared in 1934 as “The Jewish Chronicle Cookery Book” edited by Florence Greenberg, the cookery editor of the Jewish Chronicle. The volume was an immediate hit, and it is not hard to see why: Within the first 20 pages Greenberg explained the workings of a kitchen, food values, the basic principles of koshering meat and chicken, food for toddlers, and even “A Slimming Diet.”
With cooking methods given at the start of each chapter, and recipes offering “en casserole,” à la Francaise, and Provençal, this was a book of household management for the aspiring interwar woman — there is even a page of cocktail recipes, starting with the Bronx and the Manhattan.
However, the book was also the stuff of the aspiring, assimilating Jew: There were practically no Jewish recipes per se — not even for chicken soup or matza balls (though there was one for Chicken Broth à la Francaise).
This was a kosher version of an English cookbook, plus a few traditional recipes brought together in a final short section, “Passover Cookery.” Even the recipe for “Gefillte Fisch” was far from the colorless balls and patties of latter years, this one involving thick slices of stuffed haddock and thickening the resulting “liquor” or stock with egg yolks. No Yiddishe Mama in a shtetl would have known from fish liquor, or have wasted two egg yolks thickening it.
“The Jewish Chronicle Cookery Book” established Florence Greenberg as the reigning authority on British Jewish cooking — which is why in 1947 it was reissued under her own name. Thus the FG was born, and with time became a minor publishing phenomenon. There were eight editions and 13 reprints.
The final edition came out in 1980 in large album format full of glossy pictures, clearly trying to compete with the emerging cookbook mass market — and failing miserably.
Greenberg’s cooking was intended for no-nonsense British women — food for purpose, not pictures — rather like her.
She was born Florence Oppenheimer in London in 1882, to a wealthy Jewish family of Dutch origin and, unusually for the period, educated at day school in England and boarding school in Germany. She completed her nursing training just as the World War I broke out, so she joined the Army Nursing Service and was sent out East.
After the war, Florence met and married Leonard Greenberg, a widower some 20 years her senior and the long-standing editor of the weekly Jewish Chronicle. He appointed her the paper’s cooking writer in 1920, a position she held for 42 years.
Britain’s Ministry of Food employed her during World War II to explain to Jewish women how best to extend their families’ food rations.
Such thrift and practicality pervade the post-war “Florence Greenberg’s Cookery Book” in all its various editions, including the one that lived in our house for many years.
Our mother, Lila, was undoubtedly made in the mold of Florence Greenberg, a no-nonsense English woman who strode through life being capable.
Born in 1934, the same year as the original FG, her name reflected the aspiring, assimilating Jew: Lila was for Leah, her grandmother, but was thought to sound exotic rather than Jewish. She was one of a generation of Lilas who were meant to be Leahs, and she didn’t think much of it.
Lila immigrated to Israel from Manchester in 1957, armed with her 1953 edition of the FG, now a volume of some 500 pages with a greater array of traditional Jewish recipes, including a more identifiable one for “Gefillte” fish balls.
By then, the overall flavors and aspirations of the book had decidedly evolved since the original publication: The cocktails and the lavish touches were gone, supplanted with postwar cooking reflecting the rationing that was still in force in Britain until 1954. It had become a book about home economy, stretching small quantities of food in order to feed people with remarkably little — which proved very useful in Israel in the 1950s and for some years after.
Eschewing both the indulgences of big cities and the collectivism of the kibbutz, Lila was part of a group that helped to establish Kiryat Gat, a new town in the south of Israel. The small group of young, English-speaking (“Anglo-Saxon,” in Israeli parlance) idealists mixed well with the rainbow of immigrants from everywhere from Morocco to Romania.
There she settled and made her life, there she met and married our father Dov and raised me and my two sisters, and there she is buried.
Kiryat Gat was also where she went to the open-air market every week, the regular gathering of local farmers selling the balance of their produce that had not been shipped to the big cities or overseas — and then cooked up a storm.
Our mother used to say that she learned to cook out of a sense of self-preservation, since she grew up in a home where the kitchen was largely unused.
Rather like the young Florence Greenberg, she first learned to cook by catering for large groups, in her case during summer camps run by the Habonim Jewish youth movement.
But, beyond the basic culinary skills that she picked up in the summer camps, it was the FG that taught her how to manage food and feed a family, and it taught her well.
Our mother was an excellent cook, who could stretch a chicken into two meals for five people, make soup out of anything — there was always soup in our house — and create 101 dishes out of any vegetable that appeared in the market.
This was “the land flowing with milk and honey,” and in Israel of the 1960s and ‘70s, fruits and vegetables reigned supreme because meat was expensive.
The worst that could be said about my mother’s cooking was that she lost her passion for it over time, with the exception of preparing food for birthdays, special occasions and of course the Jewish holidays. That was when cooking returned to the fore, as did the FG, at least in spirit and often in practice.
Florence Greenberg taught Lila how to recreate the flavors of her upbringing. That included English staples, such as Victoria sponge cakes and scones with strawberry jam — which were decidedly not the stuff of everyday life in 1960s-70s Kiryat Gat — as well as the specific blends of British Jewish recipes she grew up with.
They were very Ashkenazi, but without too much sugar, since the family, like many British Jews, originally hailed from the Baltic states. Both my mother and the FG steered away from the principally Polish-Jewish habit of putting sugar into everything, including gefilte fish.
I can’t really write about Britain or British Jewish cooking without dwelling on our grandmother: Granny to us, Schvig to our father (from the Yiddish for mother-in-law, schvigger), Mrs. Levene to most others, but always Rosie to herself and in her mind. A Jewish English rose, transplanted into hot and dusty Kiryat Gat. She followed our mother, her only daughter, and then stayed. As our father so delicately put it: She came for the wedding in 1958, and forgot the way home. Apart from the odd year back in Manchester, her much beloved native city, she lived in Israel for 30 years, until she died. But she always remained the most English person possible.
Granny had very little interest in The Florence Greenberg, or indeed in cooking or food in general. In fact, left to her own devices in her little house up the street from us, Granny seemed to subsist quite happily on endless cups of tea with biscuits (cookies, to Americans). Proper tea — leaves, not tea bags, sent to her regularly from England, and kept in a tea caddy (an old sweet tin) to keep the leaves dry.
Endless numbers of times a day she would open the tin and expertly measure out some leaves with her fingers, to sprinkle into the strainer if it was a mug (a late, rather grudging development), but mostly into a tea pot, properly warmed. When the tea was brewed she would drink it with a drop of milk from a cup and saucer — she had a full set of Royal Swan china, with big pink blooms and gold leaf rims — with two biscuits perched on the side. Quite a sight in Kiryat Gat of those years.
Granny was a creature of habit. Apart from the endless tea and biscuits, once a week she would make a pot of chicken soup. She had a bowl of the broth for lunch every day, with a piece of chicken, some potatoes and carrots: all from the same pot, all more or less tasteless. Every day. Supper was a boiled egg, a few pieces of tomato and cucumber and two slices of bread. Every day. No wonder Lila learned to cook, if that was what was on offer at home.
There was only one deviation from Granny’s predictable and boring routine: She made amazing gefilte fish. The real, proper dish, from scratch, both in balls and stuffed into slices of carp, ground in a hand-operated meat grinder attached to the table, with a proper aspic, or jelly, boiled down from a stock made with fish heads and bones. A labor of love and many hours, her gefilte fish was totally delicious: fishy but not overly so, with a hint of ginger in the mince and firm but flaky carp flesh.
With a dollop of chrain (horseradish relish, in her case with beets), her gefilte fish was always and amazingly sheer magic. It was as if a stray culinary gene had inveigled its way into her DNA, coming to the fore every few weeks for one bravado performance, then retreating to recuperate behind the vacuum where her taste genes should have been. But it was worth it: A devoted royalist, she produced a dish fit for the Queen.
3-3-3-9. That is the formula for lemon curd that I use to this day, and it is classic FG: simple, clear and easy to remember. “3 lemons, 3 eggs, 3 ounces of butter, 9 ounces of sugar. Put the butter, sugar, grated rind, and strained juice of the lemons into a double saucepan, stir occasionally, and when sugar has dissolved, add the well beaten eggs, stir till it thickens, but do not boil.” That’s it. No pictures, lengthy explanations, cute asides or pictures. And it always works.
Lemon curd was a Pesach staple in our house, as were strawberry jam and date jam — all of them freshly made, in a kitchen that had been thoroughly cleaned and koshered for Passover, and totally and utterly delicious on that first crisp piece of matza, possibly with a bit of butter too. It was the first and in some ways best taste of Pesach, courtesy of Florence Greenberg.
Granny loved the jams too; she had a very sweet tooth. In fact, in her last years it was difficult to get her to eat anything else.
In 1978 she had a massive stroke, after which she moved to a brand new nursing home close to the sea, in Ashkelon.
We always brought her home to us for Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, and she enjoyed the festive table settings, the many guests and, on Passover, the very traditional seder with all the songs. She did not eat a large amount, but she lapped up bowls of chicken soup and picked at carrot tzimmes, a stew with cinnamon.
Above all she adored the gefilte fish our mother made, which was really as good as hers. Lila laid it out in elongated Danish stainless dishes, very 1970s, the fish heads and tails at each end and the stuffed slices in between, decorated with thin slices of carrot. It is a traditional way of serving it, but if you peek into the FG recipe for gefilte fish, in the 1953 edition, you’ll find she too tells you to do that.
Granny died in 1986, and Lila in 1987. And so, it is to the FG we often turn at Rosh Hashanah, Pesach and some festivals in between to recreate our family taste of traditional recipes. Last Pesach my younger sister made perfect gefilte fish; this year it is my turn.
The author, who worked for the United Nations for several years, is a historian and a political analyst who is currently based in Brussels.