Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Holiday - and Great Lakes - Fish

What with planning for Passover and two seders, I shouldn’t be spending time thinking about the Great Lakes. Yet even while preparing for the holidays my thoughts turn to the nearby waters, specifically to the fish swimming around in them. Why? Because gefilte fish is an integral part of every Jewish holiday.

Gefilte fish means “stuffed fish”. According to Joan Nathan, in the Jewish Holiday Kitchen, the holiday food dates back to the middle ages in Eastern Europe. In those days, fresh fish was not as readily available as it is today, and poor Jews invented a way to extend the little fish they had by adding onions, seasonings, bread or matzah crumbs, and even including the skin and bones in the concoction, which is then boiled or poached.

Over the ages, gefilte fish has been made with whatever kind of fish was available and inexpensive. Everything from carp and mullet to whitefish and pike are still used. My mother would tell how her mother would bring home a fresh carp, probably from nearby Lake Ontario, and have it swim in the bathtub for days before holidays. Her story was confirmed when in the 1980’s when my children were young I found the children’s’ book called A Carp in the Bathtub.

Carp was not native to North America but was brought here from Europe in the early 19th century. Some think they may have migrated up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal into Lakes Erie and Ontario. Carp can live in low oxygen conditions and that is probably why in the years that eutrophication - which we know as tons of algae in the lake- was a problem in Lake Erie, the carp survived. By the way, this carp is the common carp and not the huge Asian carp, which are invasive species that are now in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and present a significant enough risk that an electric barrier is being constructed to try to keep them out of the Great Lakes.

Carp are large bottom feeders and have high fat content, which means that toxic substances accumulate at a high rate in them. In some areas, depending on the pollutants, they are highly toxic. My grandmother probably wouldn’t be using today’s carp in her gefilte fish.

From the time my husband and I were married, making the gefilte fish was my mother-in-law’s job. She is no longer alive but I still think of her gefilte fish as the best ever. Her preference was to make it from all whitefish, which is a mainstay of Great Lakes fisheries. According to Wayne Grady, In The Great Lakes: A Natural History of a Changing Region, whitefish populations have been up and down in all the Great Lakes since the 1920’s, influenced by such things as the introduction of other species, like alewives and smelt, which are predators of whitefish. The population increased in the late 1980’s and 90’s and is now somewhat stable, but the evidence is that the fish are smaller than they used to be. I guess Mom would have had to scale, clean, and grind many more fish to make enough fish for our family.

This is just a taste - no pun intended - of what I have learned about a few of the fish that can be used to make gefilte fish. I would tell you more but I have to also make chicken soup, brisket and bake a sponge cake. No time for further research today.

I am not sure if there is any kind of fish associated with Easter. I think of Easter as more of a chocolate and bunny rabbit holiday, but if there is a special fish dish eaten on Easter, please let me know. After this week, I will have time to do more research.

Happy Holidays to all.


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