On the Jewish food scene: Ode to herring by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

My father did not like sandwiches. That amazed my mother, who decided they were married for better and worse, but not for lunch because what else do you eat at lunch, if not a sandwich? Fortunately, my dad was much easier to feed at dinner time: he was happy with a meal consisting of herring from a jar, a baked potato and a vegetable.
I inherited my dad’s love of herring. When I was a kid, my favorite was herring in cream sauce. When I could no longer eat it because of the preservatives it contains, I experimented with other types of pickled herring and found I pretty much liked all of them. That includes herring in wine sauce or vinegar brine. I’ll eat herring for a meal or as a snack. When I have a jar in the frig – even a large jar – it doesn’t take me long to polish it off.

Herring has long been a staple on kiddush tables after Shabbat services, at least for Ashkenazic Jews. It is inexpensive (much cheaper than lox or whitefish), easy to prepare (just put the jar on the table or dump the contents in a dish) and tastes fine placed on a piece of challah. I know it was something that my grandfather ate in shul after service, sometimes with a shot of schnapps.

My family always ate herring straight from the jar, although I know some people use it to make a salad with potatoes, pickles and onions. (No thanks: I take mine straight!) I don’t think I’ve ever had fresh herring, at least, not that I remember. I was surprised to find out that there are other ways to eat herring. In a recent food article, I wrote about my love of kugel. One reader informed me of a kind of kugel with which I was completely unfamiliar: herring kugel. Yes, you read the correctly: herring kugel. One of his relatives used to make it, although he hasn’t eaten it in years. I actually did find a recipe for herring kugel online: it contains herring, potato, butter, onions and coffee cream. The recipe didn’t strike me as particularly appealing, although I’d be willing to try a piece if someone else made it.
When looking for information about herring online, I learned that it’s now available in a wider variety of flavors, although I have yet to see these in a local grocery store. I’m not sure how I feel about such flavors as smokey zaatar, honey mustard sriracha or sweet black pepper herring. Well, if they were available, I’d probably give them a try just to see. Some unlikely combinations really do work. But eating the old fashioned type of herring is probably something I’ll always do: those jars of herring remind me of my father and the meals we used to share.