Whitefish shortage startles as Passover approaches

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CHICAGO -- Fish markets typically spend this time of year preparing hundreds of pounds of whitefish for their Jewish customers to mix with onions and carrots for gefilte fish recipes handed down by grandmothers and mothers.

This year, however, Chicago-area fish suppliers are dealing with panicked cooks after a shortage of whitefish has left many scrambling to prepare the traditional, if not sometimes dreaded, menu item for Passover, which begins this evening.

The shortage comes after ice on the Great Lakes has kept fishermen from sending their boats out for a catch usually available in abundance this time of year, said Mark Holey, a project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although wholesalers have noticed the short supply since January, it became acute last week, when lines of customers began placing orders for whitefish in time for the Jewish holiday, said John Poulos, operations manager for Issacson & Stein Fish Company in Chicago. Mr. Poulos said his company had about 20 percent of the whitefish it usually has as Passover approached.

In Jewish tradition, gefilte fish is one of the first courses in observance of Passover. Prepared by grounding various varieties of fish -- whitefish, pike and trout are among the most commonly used -- and then forming the flesh into loaves, the dish is both loved and loathed at Passover tables.

The dish satisfies two of the laws of the Sabbath and holidays, according to Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, an administrator for the Chicago Rabbinical Council. One of those laws requires that people not work on the Sabbath; that includes the work required to pick flesh off fish bones. The other requires people to eat fish as part of their Sabbath meal, he said.

During the week of Passover, a Jewish family might sit down for a holiday Seder, or dinner, five times in which gefilte fish is served, he said.

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