They began after Mr. Pulda retired. My mom did business with him just twice a year, in spring and autumn, referring to his place of business simply as Pulda's. The fish she bought from him were not, in our central New England city, readily available elsewhere; freshwater fish -- pike, buffel carp, whitefish -- ingredients for an ethnic food originating with Jewish folk of eastern European origin. Gefilte fish.
My boyhood self was repelled by it. Round and baseball size, the appearance almost seemed designed to frighten; the disagreeable color -- a pale and lifeless white/grey -- was made even more unpleasant by the addition of dark strips of fish skin and it was served on a plate with the congealed cooking liquid which looked quite like a dead jellyfish. A limp and pale piece or two of cooked carrot which had been dredged from the pot suggested something left behind after the tide went out. An offensive smell was somehow sour and the tormenting taste of cold fish augmented by an underlying bitterness and a texture suitable for the toothless made it inedible.
Gefilte fish was a traditional holiday dish, a first course, prepared originally by my grandmother who had taught her daughter the unwritten recipe as they cooked side by side. I had tasted it once and thereafter refused to eat it. I could not understand when uncles and aunts would without fail praise it, always with the same few words.
"The fish is delicious this year."
I became an adult having avoided gefilte fish for many years. By then my grandmother had died and the making of the fish was done just by my mom. Interestingly, no aunts ever made it. Perhaps they had never been taught. Gefilte fish eventually became available in markets, sold in glass jars, but my mom found the commercial product unsatisfactory.
"It's got no taste."
Having become an adult I found that pleasing one's folks was somehow more important, and the satisfaction of so doing more rewarding than for the adolescent. I tried her gefilte fish again. It was still prepared just as her mom had taught her, by hand, served with homemade horseradish.
I was surprised to find that it was not bad. And subsequently over the years I came to enjoy and look forward to it. Perhaps the gatherings at which it was served, our extended family meeting together year after year for Passover and the New Year, were a part of my appreciation as well.
Then Mr. Pulda retired. Fewer women were making their own gefilte fish, many having opted for the ease of "the jar." Thus began what became my mom's routine of relating to her guests in some detail her adventures in getting the necessary fish, what I took to calling her fish stories and which I came to happily anticipate.
At first, she, a lifelong resident of her community, simply called the retired Mr. Pulda at home and persuaded him to use his contacts to get her the fish which she would pick up. Persuasion gradually became more difficult as Mr. Pulda became further removed from the business. Finally, for whatever reason, he could no longer help. As luck would have it, just at that time a local market offered to accept preorders for fish which would be sent from New York. While this appeared to be a good solution, it seemed each year there were complications, "the truck broke down" or "bad weather" or other circumstances which would have my mom on the phone pleading with the store manager, explaining how many people were coming for dinner and probably, though I never heard it, suggesting he drive to the Fulton Fish Market and deliver the fish to her home personally.
Somehow she always managed to get the fish and her fish stories became more exciting with each telling. Now she had entered her seventies and I began to take a day off from work, drive from my home in the neighboring state, and spend the day helping make the gefilte fish. I had realized it was an all-day labor intensive task, and thought it more than my mom at that age should take on alone.
All day and labor intensive indeed. She insisted that the work be done by hand as she had learned and so I stood chopping away with her ancient hackmesser in her ancient wooden bowl. For hours.
"Couldn't we use a food processor?"
"It's not the same."
As I chopped she would stand next to me with a knife finding and scraping tiny pieces of fish hidden near the gills or a fin that had escaped the filleting process. She would relate to me her fish story in less detail and with less drama than she would tell it at the holiday dinner. And we would chat of news and family and the like. Meanwhile, my dad would putter about the house doing whatever old men do when they putter about, stopping in the kitchen from time to time to check on our progress.
Finally when the fish had been shaped and placed into the broth of fish heads, bones, and skin, augmented as well by carrots, celery, and onion to simmer I took the huge horseradish root my mom handed me and went outside to sit on the porch step and, naturally, to grate it by hand.
"It's better that way."
The market stopped taking orders for fish. So few women were still making gefilte fish I suppose it was simply determined to be no longer a reasonable service, though I imagined that a store manager, finally worn down and his spirit broken by my mom's demanding phone calls simply threw in the proverbial towel.
Thus, a new fish crisis, a new opportunity for fish stories. My mom found a small notice that an ethnic market, an hour and a half to the south, would take orders for fish. By then, approaching her eighties, she may have been the last woman in town making gefilte fish from scratch. I was happy to drive from home to her house and then drive on to the market with her to pick up the fish. They were happy trips, just she and I talking without the distractions of home to interrupt. And while the three hour round trip to the market meant a longer day for me assisting her, there was a pleasant surprise.
The fish she had ordered had been put through a grinder! She looked at the ground fish with suspicion that first time, first processing in her mind the change from a lifelong routine and then carefully determining that all three fish species were included and finally checking to be certain the other container included the total number of fish heads as well as the proper amount of skin and bones. For me it meant that at least an hour of chopping by hand had been eliminated. What would she say?
"That's okay. It'll be fine."
For the next several years our twice yearly trips to pick up the fish, prepare it, grind the horseradish, were a joyful routine. The fish stories at dinner were less dramatic. There were fewer uncles and aunts to attend, but now their chairs were filled by her grown grandchildren who had developed a taste for gefilte fish, homemade.
And I would say that, "the fish is delicious this year".
Originally published by 3288 Review.
Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-06-13
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.