April 16, 1997

Some family recipes contain ingredients you can't find at the fishmonger's.


last April, six years out of college and only recently in possession of an apartment that could accommodate a dinner party, I decided to host my first seder. I bought three versions of the Haggadah, the prayer book, and patched together a service that would acknowledge my family's mixed Sephardic and Eastern European lineage while using gender-neutral language. If the ritual would be contemporary, the dinner would be traditional. After cooking on a hot plate in my old walk-up studio, I intended to make full use of my new big kitchen. I jokingly boasted that everything would be made from scratch, including the gefilte fish. 

"Your Bubbi made the best gefilte fish," says my mother dreamily when I call her in Los Angeles for the recipe. She remembers being a girl of maybe 5 years old, peering over the kitchen counter with her cousin Sandi, also 5, to watch their Russian grandmother chop carp and pike in a big wooden bowl using a half-moon shaped knife she called the "hockmeister." Occasionally lapsing into Yiddish, Grandma Dora would narrate as she worked, "a little bit this ... a dash that," revealing secrets that would be lost on two children. 

"So how do you make it?" 

"No idea. I never made it," she confesses. To a woman raising two kids while working as an ICU nurse and going to school, the idea of making one's own gefilte fish was as unlikely as fermenting one's own wine or churning one's own butter. Her advice: "Open a jar of Manischevitz." 

As an adult she had cooked with her grandmother on only one occasion. "When I was pregnant with your brother, we made strudel together. There was no recipe, of course, it was in her head -- in Yiddish. I was due any day, and she said, 'You can't go to the hospital with nothing. You have to have a little something for your guests, especially the nurses.' We made pounds and pounds of strudel. She said, 'Make extra. If it's a boy we'll eat it at the bris.' This time I wrote down what she did. She rolled the dough so thin, and used lots of cinnamon and cherries and apples." 

That it was a complicated recipe was no accident. Bubbi understood that the value of comfort food was not in the eating, but in the making. What better distraction for an anxious pregnant woman than rolling dough until it was translucent, and peeling and slicing piles of apples? 

If Mom had caught the strudel recipe, maybe Sandi had notes on gefilte fish. In the five years I'd lived in New York I had a standing invitation to come to Sandi's seder on Long Island. This year, however, she was back in the hospital fighting yet another round in the battle against the three cancers that plagued her body. During a visit to her hospital room, I plan to bring up the subject of Passover, knowing this could be tricky, because her family is worried she might be here. Surrounded by her family -- daughter Stacy, two years my senior, son Eric and husband Joel -- Sandi does not cover her head, which is bald from the chemotherapy. A tray of hospital food stands untouched, except for a wax-paper cup of ice cream that Stacy, five months pregnant and with constant appetite, has picked at. Sandi studies my face. "I like having you in my company," she says in a voice loud enough to make me a little uncomfortable, because I know her hearing has been diminished by the treatment. "You remind me of your mother." 

Out of context, this could be taken as an insult since most women my age fear becoming their mothers. (Not me. I had established earlier in the week that I was, in fact, becoming my great-grandmother.) But I know what she means. What she means is that she and my mother had grown up together, and that they had just entered their 50s together. That they, as girls, had gone to countless family dinners where Grandma Dora made matzo ball soup ("use seltzer instead of broth in the balls," she'd say, "makes them lighter"). That Sandi, pregnant (Stacy), danced at my mother's wedding and pregnant again (Eric) saw my mother off when she moved to California with my father. 

All I can think to tell her was that if mom could have been here at this moment, she would. She had bought a plane ticket and would see her in three weeks. I change the subject. "I'm having a seder." 

She leans in. "You're giving seder? Hunh," nodding as if she were impressed but couldn't quite picture it. 

"Yes," I say, thinking that now I might get a laugh. "I'm making my own gefilte fish." 

"You know who made good gefilte fish? Your Bubbi." 

"I know. So how do you make it?" 

"Open a jar of Rokeache's." 

Three days until Passover and no recipe has been procured. I am desperate. At the office I spot a copy of Martha Stewart Living with the cover slug: "A Passover Seder." Inside, Martha has wisely handed the topic over to a photogenic Jewish member of her staff. Here is a recipe for gefilte fish that, if you leave out the dill, seems perfectly workable. Should I care that it's coming from magazine publishing's Donna Reed? No, but I decide not to broadcast the fact. 

Her recipe instructs me to speak to "my fishmonger" about having fish ground and the carcasses wrapped up to make stock. A fishmonger? I picture a heavy man named Katz wearing a bloody, scaly apron in a shop with a bell on the door. It rings as I enter, and he smiles in recognition. He says what's fresh and that he's set aside some day-old tuna for my cat. This is a fantasy. I don't have a cat. I most certainly do not have a fishmonger. I call Balducci's, a gourmet grocer. 

Meanwhile, Sandi's fever begins to spike at night. Her skin flushes scarlet and she shivers violently, teeth chattering. When no tests reveal what is causing the fevers, she is allowed to go home and take Tylenol there. She is thrilled at the prospect of having seder at home. Although it isn't a traditional holiday dish, Sandi decides that she is going to make stuffed cabbage. Her vision has worsened and her legs are swollen to where her skin is taut, both side effects of her medication. Stuffed cabbage is a labor-intensive venture, but she is adamant about doing this, so her husband and children pitch in. For hours they fill leaf after leaf with a meat and rice mixture, producing enough to feed three times the number of people in the house. She shrugs. "It'll freeze." 

Mr. Balducci has come through with whitefish and pike, which I will pick up after work. My mother is so impressed with my determination that we discuss the possibility of my freezing a few pieces so she can sample my efforts when she comes to see Sandi later in the month. "I want to see if it's as good as my grandmother's," she says. I dismiss the idea: "Ick -- who wants to eat frozen-defrosted gefilte fish?" I tell her I'll bring some to Sandi and let her make a ruling on the Bubbi scale. When I arrive at work that Thursday before Passover there is a message on my voice-mail from Stacy's husband. "In case your mom hasn't told you yet, Sandi passed away yesterday. The funeral is tomorrow morning." 

Mom has not heard yet. I will have to tell her. I arrange her plane ticket and head home to clean the apartment and start on the gefilte fish. Cruelly, now she will be able to taste the fish after all. I consider waiting until Mom arrives, on the premise that making gefilte fish together might occupy her mind for a few hours. Perhaps selfishly, I decide against it. This is still my project, and in breaking the news of Sandi's death to my mother earlier today, I have already done one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. I unwrap the fish carcasses. They are bloody and staring up at me and, defiantly, they don't fit in the stock pot. What you wouldn't give sometimes for a hockmeister. (Turns out Williams-Sonoma carries one, but they don't know it: They call it a "mezzaluna.") 

In between shaping egg-sized pats of the fish mixture and dropping them in the stock, I answer the phone half a dozen times, giving funeral directions to various extended family members. Later I realize how unbearable that scene would have been had my hands and mind not been occupied with achieving the right balance of fish, egg and onion. My mother arrives at my door some eight hours later. She drops her bag and we hug until she laughs a little under a sniffle. "Whoo. You stink," she says. Apparently the whole apartment reeks of fish and onions and I have grown used to it. 

"Yes, but look." I guide her to the kitchen. Inside the refrigerator are two trays of perfectly uniform gefilte fish, chilling in their gelatinous stock. 

In the morning, Sandi is buried. At the cemetery my mother and I pause to put a stone on Bubbi's grave. After the funeral, we go to Sandi's house, where the mirrors are covered for shiva. There is a huge buffet spread for the mourners. Stacy assesses the baskets of bagels and rye bread and says plaintively, "Passover starts tonight. We can't eat half this stuff then anyway." For the first time, her pregnant appetite has subsided. Her belly protruding from her tiny frame, Stacy isn't alone for a minute before one of a dozen Jewish mothers -- including my own -- is trying to feed her. It's these women's way of coping. When you don't know what to say to a young woman, pregnant with her first child, who has just lost her mother, you ask if she's hungry. You reel off what's on the buffet, even though she can see clearly for herself. You make conversation and try to tempt her. And if there's nothing that appeals to her, the freezer is full of stuffed cabbage. Again I am reminded of Bubbi: The comfort in comfort food is in preparing it for others, whether it's fussing for hours or just "lemme fix you a plate." 

The following evening, before my seder, Mom is busying herself arranging flowers and setting the table. Those jobs were mine as a child, to keep me out of her way in the kitchen. I take the trays of gefilte fish from the refrigerator, separate the cakes from the jelled broth, and begin cutting carrots for garnish. I offer some for my mother to sample. She dabs a small piece of fish in the horseradish and tastes. "It's like you were channeling," she says. "It's like Bubbi was here." For an optimistic moment I consider making strudel when Stacy has her baby in September. 

This year on Passover Mom will make gefilte fish for my parents' Havurah, a social group at their L.A. synagogue. And if people ask for the recipe, she might have to 'fess up and credit Martha Stewart. Or she might say it's a family recipe: She learned it from her daughter. 

Allison Adato is a staff writer at Life magazine. She will be spending this passover at her future in-laws' other in-laws'.

Do you have a family recipe that has a special meaning for you? Serve it up in Table Talk.

Taste Features archive