Shira Lester: The Gefilte Fish Diaries
By Shira Lester, Director of Development and Donor Engagement
In my family, Pesach is synonymous with Gefilte Fish. My Bubby Ida, in her heyday, used to make 20 pounds – enough for two enormous seders and leftovers for the immediate family, extended family and friends for the full week of Passover. When I was young and newly married, I lived in the upstairs apartment of Bubby Ida’s duplex on Dalou Street in Montreal. I was in law school at the time and Pesach always coincided with final exams. I would be immersed in my studies and the phone would ring. It was Bubby and she would say: “Come downstairs. I’m making the fish.” “I can’t Bubby,” I would say, “I’m studying”. “Nevermind!” She would say. “Come down and lern zach.” (Learn). Bubby Ida was taught to make gefilte fish by her mother, Rochel Basha, in the Shtetl of Antopol. Rochel Bashe perished in the Holocaust and Bubby used to say “Whenever I make gefilte fish, my mother stands next to me.”
I made gefilte fish with Bubby Ida for years until I moved to Toronto, where my mother and sister already lived. The locus of gefilte fish making shifted to my mother’s kitchen, and Bubby Ida would travel to Toronto to supervise. Bubby Ida died in 2003 at 91 years old and her gefilte fish lives on. Every year, my sister and I set aside a day to make gefilte fish with our mother, Bubby Roz. This year, we were joined by my daughter, adding a third generation to the process.
Over the years, I have learned the Rules of Gefilte Fish Making as taught by Bubby Ida and passed down to Bubby Roz. They are as follows: Never buy ground fish – you have to grind it yourself; you never know what kind of chazerai they put in pre-ground fish. Keep all the fish bones for the broth in which to poach the fish and include onion skins in the broth, it makes the fish a lovely golden colour. Mix the ground fish, eggs, oil, matzoh meal, salt, pepper, a little sugar and ice water, with your hands, for a minimum of 30 minutes until the mixture is fluffy and bouncy – almost like jelly.
There is a recipe, dictated by Bubby Ida to Bubby Roz, but it’s not exact. This dish is less about the measurement of ingredients and more about instinct. The gold standard is if it tastes like Bubby Idas’s. There is no question that when we make gefilte fish, Bubby Ida stands next to us.
In 2006 Bubby Roz began keeping the gefilte fish diaries. Each Pesach, she records the highs and lows of the year since the last Pesach – the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren, a new job, academic achievement and even a marriage. Most importantly, each entry concludes with the gefilte fish review. Sometimes they’re a bit dry, sometimes too dense. This year she wrote: “So the fish wasn’t bad. Texture was good – juicy but didn’t put enough salt in. Didn’t test the raw fish enough. Had a good amount of pepper.”
Such a lovely story. May future generations stand together in gefilte fish learning and solidarity.
Good family, good recipe.