The Gefilte Fish Line: What the Ashkenazi Snack Says About Your Ancestors

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This is gefilte fish. It is popularly served with jellied broth and carrot.Credit: Nir Kafri

Before the Soviet Union's Iron Wall, even earlier than France's Maginot Line, the Jews had the "gefilte fish line."

Taste someone's gefilte fish, and you can probably tell them where their family came from in Europe, according to an NPR report from last week.

The report explained that a geographic dividing line, which follows the boundaries of the two of the main Yiddish dialects, separates how Jews prepared their gefilte fish. The Polish/Galician side of the line preferred it sweet, while the Lithuanian side opted for savory.

The historical reason, according to the NPR report, lies in the surge of the sugar beet industry in early 19th-century Poland. Imported sugar was prohibitively expensive, so when the first sugar beet factory opened at the turn of the 19th century in what is now southern Poland, beet sugar began to make it into everything.

"Other Jews had savory noodle kugels," said culinary historian Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. "You didn't have sweet challah. The idea of putting sugar into anything else was absurd."

Yet that is just what Polish Jews did, for their kugel, their cabbage and their gefilte fish.

The report did note that sweet gefilte fish has lost its prominence among descendants of Polish Jews, such as the Russ and Daughters family store, which has been selling fish on New York City's Lower East Side for over 100 years.

Niki Russ Federman, the store owner, acknowledged that the gefilte fish on the premises started out sweet but is now savory.

"Not Galitzianer," acknowledges Federman. "Tastes have really changed."

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