The Great Gefilte Fish Divide: Unearthing My Jewish Roots, 3

The Great Gefilte Fish Divide: Unearthing My Jewish Roots, 3

At the end of this first year of exploring the history of my mother’s family, I’ve been looking into its geographical origins. My mother was proud of her sophisticated Viennese heritage, so I was surprised to learn that her roots were in Tarnow, Poland, considered a shtetl. I was also confused about how our family eluded the linguistic and religious preferences that might have been predicted by  Tarnow’s location in Galicia, a Yiddish-speaking, Hasidic-leaning province in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Frances and Nathan Kornmehl, ca. 1990. A mixed marriage?

But I learned from a comment on this most recent post by avid family historian Jill Leibman Kornmehl that at least one member of my mother’s clan did conform to regional religious expectations: Jill’s mother-in-law, Frances Leder Kornmehl, was brought up Hasidic in Tarnow. Frances’ husband Nathan Kornmehl — aka The Last of the Kornmehl Butchers (Maybe) — was also from Tarnow, but he was more modern when it came to religion.

This was a mixed marriage that, according to Jill, was very successful.

Still, given the culinary divide I have discovered in the ancestral land of my people, the so-called “gefilte fish line,” I have to wonder whose tastes ruled that Kornmehl kitchen.

Not Just a Big Fish Story

According to the Jewish Daily Forward:

In his 1965 doctoral dissertation, “The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History,” based on interviews with Jews from pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, Marvin Herzog presented what is now known as the “gefilte fish line.” The line runs north to south, about 40 miles east of Warsaw; west of it, the preferred gefilte fish preparation was sweet, while to the east the fish was peppery.

This article also tells you more than you might want to know about the history and preparation of gefilte fish.
Note:  Although I was unable to locate a map of historical Galicia and Lithuania for my last post, I had no problem finding a map of the gefilte fish line; this one is from a blog hosted by of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
Cartographically speaking, my family falls firmly on the sweet side of the pressed fish divide.
Rumor has it that gefilte fish made from scratch actually tastes good. I have never experienced that phenomenon, either at my home or in friends’ houses.  On Passover and Rosh Hashanah, we were served fishy items surrounded by a gelled substance out of  a Manishchevitz jar that were made barely palatable with horseradish. I shudder to imagine them with sugar.

Once again, our family was in an anomalous position. Even though Tarnow was on the Galician side of the line, we ate savory — as opposed to sweet, not in its alternate meaning of “tasty”– gefilte fish.

Beyond Gefilte Fish

But when it came to other Jewish foods, we were Galitzianer all the way.

I read a post on the Hungry Gerald blog that shocked me:

The HG Family was totally Litvak and this was expressed in its cuisine. It was based on chicken fat, garlic, onions and plentiful salt and pepper. Here’s an example — lukshen kugel (noodle pudding), an HG favorite. As HG’s Mom prepared it, the kugel had something in common with Italian baked ziti. Mom’s kugel was simple. Wide noodles prepared al dente and piled into a casserole with abundant chicken fat and grated garlic. When removed from the oven it had a crisp, golden top and a soft, lush, fatty interior. The perfect accompaniment to braised beef. HG once had a lukshen kugel at the home of a Galitzianer friend. It was suffused with sugar, honey and cinnamon. This was a travesty of a kugel, more like an inferior dessert than a decent companion to robust meat.

Even thinking of garlicky kugel with schmaltz makes me feel queasy. A kugel without sugar, cinnamon and raisins seems deeply misguided; even HG admits it’s called noodle pudding, not noodle pasta. My wedding was a disaster in many ways — my hair had unintended green streaks in it, and my former father-in-law thought it would be funny to pretend to drag the groom down the aisle — and the marriage didn’t last, but I still have very fond memories of the sweet noodle pudding that was served.

Explaining the Disparities

Blogger Jonathan Leavett, who notes that he comes from a mixed Litvak and Galitzianer home, has a good explanation for the seeming disparity in my family’s dining traditions. He cites the Austrian influence:
Remember that Austria is the land of viennoiserie, breads which are sweetened, and of course Sachertortes, Linzertortes, and other other sweet goodies consumed with that famous Viennese beverage, coffee. (They drink it with whipped cream on top, I hear.)

My mother would never have questioned that the source of her/our sweet tooth was Austria, not Galicia. Indeed, there’s a particularly strong sugary tradition in the Viennese branch of the Kornmehl family: a chocolate-blessing rabbi, the owner of a cafe and — here’s a sneak preview of next year —  a man responsible for popularizing an iconic candy.

I wish you all a very sweet 2013. Litvaks too.

24 Responses to The Great Gefilte Fish Divide: Unearthing My Jewish Roots, 3

  1. Jill says:

    A cultural delicacy finds its way into your blog!

    Frances Kornmehl made her gefilte fish and chopped liver from scratch. No commercial stuff for her family!

    The sweet stuff promised for the new years is enticing–wishing you a sweet and productive 2013!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      But you didn’t say — was Frances’ gefilte fish sweet or peppery?

      Wishing you a sweet and productive 2013, too — with many thanks for all your help in gathering interesting (and often sweet) family stories for this blog.

  2. Leo says:

    What a fascinating series about cultural, religious and culinary borders. We do like our borders in Europe, we do.
    I remember the gefilte fish I got at my friends house, always to go with horseraddish (a lot of). His parents never let you leave their house without it. They originally fled from White-Russia to Denmark so they must have taken their preference for spicy gefilte fish with them.

    Have a Happy New Year, Edie!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      What a nice welcome to the New Year, Leo — to see an old friend on my new(ish) blog!

      We like our borders here in the U.S. too — thus all the wars with Mexico and the civil war — but they tend to cover more territory.

      I’m very happy to hear that you didn’t have to eat sweet gefilte fish. I suspect your friend’s family didn’t get theirs from a jar, like most people do in the U.S., and with a lot of horseradish, it probably wasn’t too bad.

      Have a very happy new year, too!

  3. I am amazed that with all the negative things you mention about your wedding you remember the sweet noodle pudding. This is the mark of the Viennese. Incidentally I had the privilege of tasting someone’s gefilte fish made from scratch at a Shabat on West End Avenue some years ago and I can tell you that it was savoury and exquisite.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Oh, there were many more things that went wrong… including the rabbi lecturing us about the Israeli war dead! I am pleased to know that I have the Viennese mark. I’m also glad to hear you confirm the rumor that real gefilte fish tastes good.

  4. Oh this is food for thought…I wonder what other geographic divides in Europe are reflected in American Jewish culture that we are oblivious to.

    I understand my grandmother, from western Poland, made her own gefilte fish, but we only got the glass jar of Manechevitz whitefish with a few carrots at the bottom, served with red horseradish – until later we started buying the sweet kind – why I don’t know – maybe the other started tasting less tasty, maybe supermarket began to carry sweet gefilte fish when the Jewish population increased in our suburb – maybe my mother became more adventurous, or less stingy as time went by – the sweet always cost a bit more – .
    But that such a divide and map exist – this is a whole world I didn’t know existed before today!
    Thank you for doing all this hard work to bring this to light. Much appreciated, Diane
    ps I have a new column posted today
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..Fragments: Architecture of the Holocaust: An Artist’s Journey – KoenigMy Profile

  5. Clare says:

    Real gefilte fish tastes great! And having had a Friday-fish upbringing, I know my fish products. I had a boyfriend who as a child fled to the U.S. from Russia with his parents and grandparents. He served me his grandma’s gefilte fish (she would have poisoned it and then herself had she known she’d fled religious persecution so he could fraternize with a blond shiksa), flaky, savory, tender and not at all gelatinous. I swooned!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Et tu, Clare?!

      That said, you gave me my laugh for the evening — I’m sure you’re right about the Russian grandmother and the revenge of the gefilte fish.

  6. So, What is the secret that makes Sweet Gefilte fish? sugar? more carrots?

    Am now waiting for the challenge – who’s going to try making this stuff? This has me looking up recipes now.

    Looked up Gefilte fish in my grandmother’s favorite cookbook “The New Settlement Cookbook” – found “Filled Fish – (Gefüllte Fish)” – with three recipes; In The Fairmount Cookbook it’s spelled Gefuelte Fish with similar recipes-. In my most cherished cookbook, “Like Mama Used to Make,” published by the Ann Arbor chapter of Hadassah, which reached out to a large immigrant population, most generally, in two recipes the ingredients may include white fish, pike, or trout or pickerel, onions, carrots, parsley root, celery root and some leaves, egg, matzo meal, salt, pepper. None of these recipes called for sugar.

    I found a major variation in the cookbook “Some of our best recipes are Jewish” is listed ‘Gefilte Fish, Polish style,’ which calls for almonds, parsley and a pinch of sugar.

    There is also a discussion in “Entree to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora” by Tina Wasserman (a frequent guest on the Jewish Community book circuit) which explains (states, claims?) that gefilte fish was created in late Medieval Germany, and that “Gefultte means stuffed in German.” There is a recipe there offered which diplomatically ends with “Garlic, ginger, sugar, dill, or whatever your Bubbe used to use (regional options.”

    It also discusses alternative approaches that are simpler if you don’t want the gelatinous result.
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..Fragments: Architecture of the Holocaust: An Artist’s Journey – KoenigMy Profile

  7. Bought a small jar titled “Premium Gold Gefilte Fish with Carrots” Manichewitz – and a fresh bottle of red horseradish – . It was pretty tasty I thought, and went down quickly. Had to fight off Julienne and Wookie, the cats, who were very taken with it. Less gelatinous and more watery.

    Listed in this order were the Ingredients:
    Water, Carp, Mullet, Egg Whites, Sugar, Pike, Passover Matzo Meal, Cottonseed Oil, Whitefish, Salt, Carrots, Potato Starch, Onions, etcetera

    by the way, just noticed an entry about all different sorts of weird maps on This American Life radio site. But they missed the Gefilte Fish Line!
    Diane J. Schmidt recently posted..Fragments: Architecture of the Holocaust: An Artist’s Journey – KoenigMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks for the thorough report! It sounds like the gefilte fish tradition is no longer pure (if it ever was).

      Gotta say, the words “carp” “mullet” and “pike” alone are offputting. The only ingredient that appeals to me is “whitefish” and it’s way down the line. And of course I’m imagining smoked whitefish from Zabar’s…

      I’m happy that I was able to get one up on This American Life!

  8. Very interesting! My family was never big on the whole gefilte fish, but our kugel has always been of the sweet variety. My ancestors came from Belarus and Slovakia originally. My husband (who is not Jewish) has Polish roots and tends toward the salty side of food choices. I have often wondered if our ancestors regional taste buds might have had an influence on their descendants. Thanks for the great post!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thank you — and thank you for coming by! So it would seem that by all rights you should be eating salty kugel, and yet… (I just discovered some with cabbage that, I’ve got to admit, sound pretty tasty).

  9. Jessica Klein Levenbrown says:

    This is all fabulous. I have so much to add…when I’m not typing on a tiny telephone screen!!!

Leave a reply

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.