By Brian Gersten
There are two kinds of Jews in this world: those who can tolerate gefilte fish, and those who can’t. I’m one of the latter. If you don’t know what gefilte fish actually is, here is a brief yet sufficient explanation: gefilte fish is a deboned, ground up and malodorous mixture of whitefish, carp, and pike that is balled-up, boiled in its own skeletal remains, and ultimately served cold.
My polarizing and unwavering attitude towards the dish was formed after a traumatic childhood Passover at my Aunt Nancy’s home. Although the event took place well over a decade ago, I’ve never been able to erase it from my mind.
It was a seemingly typical family gathering during the ides of April. Following the obligatory prayer rituals we took our places at the long rectangular dinner table, clutched our spoons, and took our first bites of matzo ball soup. As my relatives joyously sipped and slurped away, I was instantly and irreversibly subjected to the horrors of gefilte fish. I quickly realized the matzo balls in my soup were instead the aforementioned fishy balls. It was the same sensation one gets when you expect a glassful of water but receive a mouthful of vodka. I coughed, I grimaced, and I searched for answers. Tragically, I never found out who crossed me that Seder, but the damage was done.
Now — I’m not a religious man, but I do believe certain things happen for a reason. For years I managed to avoid gefilte fish like clichés about the plague. But last spring in Chicago – as the flowers bloomed, as the sparrows sang, and as the dog excrement thawed – I was beginning a new job at Dirk’s Fish Shop. Ironically, and cruelly, my first week as a fishmonger just so happened to coincide with Passover. While the holiday is a celebration of the Jews escaping Egypt thousands of years ago, I could not seem to escape from the holiday itself.
Of course, as though it were some kind of sick joke, one of my first tasks at the shop was to help with the gefilte fish orders. Not only was the shop cooking gefilte fish balls, but we were also selling our leftover fish carcasses to customers making their own fish stock at home. The very first thing I learned that week was that Americans do not like to look their meal in the eye. And so, I was given the menial yet surgical task of removing the eyeballs from each and every fish skeleton that was sold.
To begin, the fish carcasses were unloaded into an industrial-sized sink filled with ice water. I then clumsily put on two pairs of latex gloves, and as the color of the water gradually turned from clear to red, I dug out my first aquatic victim. When you pluck, pop, and cut out hundreds of fish eyeballs over the course of several days, it gives you an enormous amount of time to think.
I gazed upon my distorted reflection in the blood soaked ice water, crammed with too many fish to count, and I pondered over these creatures’ final thoughts. What went through their primordial minds as the fishing nets entrapped them and their kin? They couldn’t have possibly known they would end up on the pristine dinner tables of the Rosen’s, the Spiegel’s, the Goldstein’s and the countless other Jewish families throughout Chicago-land. Did these fish even believe in a God, or an afterlife for that matter?
Soon enough customers filed into the shop, and as the fish balls and bones were carried out, I gradually got used to the horrific task at hand. The very thing that once sickened me had paradoxically become part of my nine to eight job. Through this unglamorous preparation of a dish that had always haunted me, I, at the very least, started to recognize the amount work that goes into making such things.
At the end of my first week at Dirk’s, I even went so far as to try the fishy fruits of my labor. I didn’t try it because I thought I would like it; I tried it because I knew a handful of people devoted dozens of hours of their lives to making it. Something that involves so much effort and attention couldn’t possibly taste all that bad – could it? Over ten years had passed since the once-dreaded fish concoction had grazed my palate, and I can safely say that it will be at least another ten before I attempt to try it again. The God-forsaken fish balls may still indeed disgust me, but I sure as hell respect the people that make them and the others that can stomach them.
Brian Gersten is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and non-fiction writer currently pursuing an M.F.A in documentary film at Wake Forest University. He previously graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and is an associate of Kartemquin Films. Brian’s films have been screened at notable festivals and venues across the country and abroad. His writing has been published in the Sunday Salon, Gastronomica, The Examiner, and Hot Doug’s: The Book.