By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
“Roadkill and cardboard” was how someone described gefilte fish and matzah when she was a guest at her first seder. I know many people who agree with her description, at least when it comes to gefilte fish. Some people see it as a gross lump that doesn’t deserve to be called food. However, that’s because they never tasted my Aunt Naomi’s gefilte fish.
Maybe we didn’t make it to Scranton, PA, every year for Passover, but those are the seders I remember best. I can’t say much about the actual seder ritual: my grandfather chanted the whole thing in Hebrew, except for the four questions, and it went by in kind of a blur. What I do remember, though, is the food, or, at least, part of the food.
In fact, the opening part of the meal was always the best part. That meant the charoset (the version with apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine – which is still my favorite), the gefilte fish and the chicken soup with matzah balls. The rest of the meal could not live up to this opening. In fact, I could have lived on charoset, gefilte fish and chicken soup for the whole holiday. And, by the way, my aunt’s gefilte fish was a perfect dish for breakfast, if there was any left over. It was so good I never used horseradish on it, which, to me, is the ultimate sign of good gefilte fish. Horseradish is what you use when you need to hide the taste. (By the way, I do like horseradish, which does a wonderful job clearing my sinuses.)
Even in college, I enjoyed going to the seder and always arrived as early as possible. I would help my aunt by taking the shells off the hard-boiled eggs and making certain the charoset had attained its normal excellence. Fortunately, the gefilte fish was already made by the time I arrived, so I never had to deal with the smell or do any of that hard work.
Over the years, I’ve had some homemade and store-made (meaning not from a jar or can) gefilte fish that were pretty good. A local caterer, who unfortunately moved, made a very different kind that I really enjoyed. A former editor at The Reporter used to return home with gefilte fish her parents bought at a store on Long Island and that was also very good. Sigh, now that she doesn’t work at the paper, I no longer get to taste that.
Of course, none of those compare to the gefilte fish my aunt made. The last time I tasted it was during my college years, more than 40 years ago, so I can’t confirm that it really tasted as good as I remember. My aunt had four sons and, as far as I know, none of my cousin’s wives have ever made that recipe. At least I’ve found brand I enjoy eating, but I can’t help waxing nostalgic during this holiday season – remembering the fun of being in my aunt’s kitchen waiting for the holiday to begin.