Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Passover fish shortage scrambles the menu

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As one who was raised with no dietary requirements or restrictions and only one holiday food tradition -- turkey at Thanksgiving -- I was struck by this week's report out of Chicago about the scarcity of whitefish due to the frozen Great Lakes.

For Jews who depend on the usually plentiful fish to make gefilte fish for Passover -- the eight-day holiday that began Monday night -- this has been an inconvenience to say the least.

At both Wholey's and the Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip, where customers order their gefilte fish two or three weeks in advance, there was no whitefish to be found. Whole Foods reported the scarcity, too.

For one of Passover's most cherished traditions, substitutions were obviously necessary.

"Nobody has it," said Ned Carroll, the manager of seafood at Wholey's.

"When 15 pounds became available," said Kyle Houghtelin, a fishmonger at the Penn Avenue Fish Co., "the high-end purveyors in New York outbid everyone."

Gefilte fish is ground fish, typically whitefish and yellow pike or carp, combined with ingredients that usually include carrots and onions. It is made into small patties or a loaf, poached in fish stock and served cold. This Passover tradition arose from the Shabbat restriction against picking bones out of fish.

Jewish friends and acquaintances have told me gefilte fish is cherished because it is tradition, not because it tastes good.

Their forebears have been adept for centuries at both tradition and adaptation. Any time you have to accept substitution, the must-do of this and not that opens the door for transition. Every generation, elders lament the loosening of tradition in every religious and ethnic culture, which tells us that tradition itself becomes an adaptation.

There's nothing anyone could do about the ice that has curtailed or prevented commercial fishing in the Great Lakes, but long before last winter, people were experimenting with ingredients in gefilte fish. Longer ago than that, other people were forgetting about it altogether.

In 2004, writers on the Something Jewish website lamented that "this generation has almost completely forgotten about gefilte fish. Type it into any online search engine and you get ... no statistics, no fun facts, no history, bubkes. When was the last time you ordered gefilte fish off of a menu? Even Shabbat dinner tables are now adorned with sushi instead of our beloved whitefish."

I've been finding examples of cooks and chefs who have substituted any number of fish varieties -- salmon, halibut, cod, striped bass -- while, in some cases, returning to the older tradition of stuffing a fish skin with the mixture and baking it. Gefilte means "stuffed" in Yiddish.

"We've had people use cod, tilapia, hybrid striped bass," said Henry Dewey, manager of the Penn Avenue Fish Co. "We had 120 orders in the week before Passover" relating to gefilte fish. "I feel bad for the whitefish fishermen. This is their big time of year."

Fish markets will typically take orders to grind the fish. Penn Avenue Fish Co.'s order form lists yellow pike, whitefish and carp, asks whether you want it ground and whether you want the heads and bones. Those are used to make the stock.

"We've been able to get yellow pike, and walleye, which is an acceptable substitution," said Mr. Houghtelin. "But we've had to substitute a lot."

For people who steadfastly honor tradition, the lack of whitefish made me imagine mini-crises all over the country. I asked Mr. Carroll what people were doing, and he said, "They're doing this," and opened his mouth and widened his eyes to mimic shock.

During a reverie Monday, I thought about the food restrictions people honor, from keeping kosher to going vegan, and the food traditions that are not necessarily prescribed but simply upheld because we have to keep some things the way they always have been. In doing this, we also honor folklore, family recipes, the notion of good luck.

Being less fond of turkey than almost any other meat, I could easily substitute salmon, lamb, chicken or pork on Thanksgiving, but it would seem starkly weird to everyone in my family -- probably anyone in America -- and even to me.

And thank goodness.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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