Unhappy with the jars of jellied gefilte fish found in stores, Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz consulted bubbes and food scientists alike to create their own version at The Gefilteria.
If you grew up in a Jewish home, there's a chance you've read The Carp in the Bathtub. It's the story of Leah and Harry, two Jewish kids who live in a tenement building in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Neighbors and family claim that their mother makes the best gefilte fish in New York and it's all thanks to her dedication to using the freshest fish. She heads to the market a week before the Passover seder to buy the best carp available. It lives in the family's bathtub until it meets its demise when Mom makes her famous gefilte fish.
Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz grew up reading this children's story, and while their families didn't house carp in the tub during the high holidays, the tradition symbolized the importance of having the best ingredients for making even the smallest part of a meal.
For those who are uninitiated, gefilte is the Yiddish word for "stuffed." Originally, cooks would skin the fish, grind the meat and bones with eggs, onion, and bread or matzo, and then stuff it back into the skin. Eventually, rather than stuffing the skin, Eastern European Jews rolled the fish mixture into mini meatloaf mounds and boiled them in broth. It's this version that came to America—something that looks like a hardened ball of vomit.
Taking inspiration from their own memories of growing up in Jewish homes on Long Island and in New Jersey, the two decided that they wanted to take the gefilte fish suspended in jars of jelly in the kosher aisle back into the bathtub, so to speak. The two joined forces with bubbes, food scientists, and fishmongers. They read old Jewish cookbooks and consulted the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch sustainability index (carp didn't make the cut) until they came up with a recipe for fresh gefilte fish that both satisfied their desire to modernize a classic while staying true to their roots. In March 2012, The Gefilteria was born just in time for Passover.
As they approach their fourth holiday season, the two have a hard time pinning down exactly what Gefilteria is.
"That's the million-dollar question," Alpern said. "It depends on the day because we're doing so many different things every day."
She's right. Aside from regular production for those who eat gefilte fish year-round at Friday shabbat dinner, on any given day they could be doing a cooking demo at the Jewish Community Center on how to make a vegetarian Passover seder, teaching high schoolers about the cultural context of Jewish foods at Brandeis University, or testing recipes for their upcoming cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto.
Yoskowitz has a few go-to phrases to sum up the business for those who are curious about their seemingly outlandish career choice.
"I like to say that we're a couple of things: a culinary venture that reimagines Old World Jewish foods or—something that a friend suggested—a business-cum-movement," Yoskowitz said.
"Gefilte fish used to be a symbol. Then it moved to the jar, where it sits in jelly in the kosher aisle, a place where Jewish culinary inspiration goes to die," he said. "It needed to be resuscitated and modernized to become attractive again, and once we started to do that, we realized that people are as passionate about this food as we are. That's when we began to expand on our mission."
Most people have strong opinions about gefilte fish. If you're Jewish, you either love it or hate it.
My fondest Passover memories are of my sister cringing in horror as I piled horseradish onto the curiously delicious mold of unidentifiable greyish-white fish. For gentiles like Yoskowitz's Catholic brother-in-law Adam, the combination of the jarred version and an unfamiliarity with fish in ball form is enough to make many vow never to touch the stuff.
Gefilte-aversion inspired the two to get Adam to not only eat gefilte fish, but to like it. They changed the shape and made it into a loaf, so it looks like a slice from a French terrine. They incorporated trout or salmon to add a pinkish color to the mold. To make the dish more colorful and appetizing, they created a carrot horseradish and a traditional beet horseradish.
A plate of Gefilteria's gefilte fish looks like it was thoughtfully and intentionally made, not like something that was manufactured.
Adam now eats it every year.
He's not the only one. Before his death, author Oliver Sacks ordered gefilte fish to be delivered to his home daily for a taste of nostalgia—the oddest last supper. Gefilteria's version made its way to him along with dishes from New York institutions like Zabar's and Russ & Daughters.
That's what the past four years have been for the Gefilteria. Beyond reviving specific Jewish foods or recipes, and aside from cooking or teaching, the Gefilteria is home for many of those who have listened to a lecture by the two or eaten a slice of their namesake dish.
Before our interview, Alpern received an email from someone whom she'd never met, describing his love for gefilte fish.
"This man wrote, 'I grew up on Long Island and gefilte fish is one of my favorite parts of Passover,'" Alpern read. "He then added a lot of his story and details about his feelings for gefilte fish and his memories of it. I don't know who this person is, but now I know where he's from and that he loves Passover and gefilte fish."
"That's the beauty of this business," Yoskowitz added. "As long as we have a website, we'll always have people reaching out to us to talk about gefilte fish and other Jewish foods."