Jewish Food

In Brooklyn, Putting Gefilte Fish Back on the Menu

We talk with the founders of The Gefilteria, which opens in Brooklyn on Sunday, about Ashkenazi soul food, misunderstood gefilte fish, and the Jewish kombucha Read More

By / March 9, 2012
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Last Pesach, I was invited to my first seder at the home of one of The Gefilteria’s founders, Liz Alpern, and once again I came face-to-face with gefilte fish. It looked different than the stuff in the jar, but I was still unsure of the piece of food on my plate. After the first bite, however, I was sold. I pestered Liz for over a year to make me more gefilte fish. Little did I know that she was cooking up something more than just gefilte—she and Jackie Lilinshtein and Jeffery Yoskowitz of Pork Memoirs were taking Ashkenazi food to the next level with The Gefilteria.

The Gefilteria will host its launch party at Smooch in Brooklyn on Sunday. I talked with the co-founders about Ashkenazi soul food and Kvass, the Jewish kombucha.

How did the three of you get together?

This idea started as a concept, a way to re-imagine Jewish Ashkenazi food which came to me at the Hazon food conference. I mentioned it to Liz and she was really excited. We both work in the food world in various ways. We started to brainstorm ideas about Ashkenazi food and ways to make it in a way that was in-line with our values: sustainably sourced, responsible, slow comfort food.

Jackie and I were “deli friends”—whenever we would meet up in New York we’d meet at the original 2nd Ave Deli. After a while we realized that we needed to bring in Jackie’s business-sense as well as her family history of cooking these types of foods into the project. Jackie’s parents are from Russia and she grew up in Brighton Beach eating this kind of food daily; we needed her. The three of us got together with the idea of the “carp in the bathtub concept”—a philosophy of freshness and good quality ingredients that the carp in the bathtub represents.

Why gefilte fish?

The idea started with gefilte fish as a concept because it’s the most misunderstood Ashkenazi food. Most people won’t even touch it. Most people’s association with gefilte fish is jarred, ugly, grey oblong, gelatinous vessels of poor flavor and that’s not what is. Before making our initial batch of gefilte fish, it had been missing from family meals for almost a generation.

One of our guiding principles is that the beauty of Ashkenazi food is peasant in origin. It’s our culture’s tradition of making food last longer or feeding more people because in Europe we weren’t necessarily the wealthiest people. You had to make one carp feed an entire family for a full meal. We wanted to make gefilte fish inspire pride and be relevant again. It’s a relevant concept now, especially in a recession. And it’s a really delicious and a nutritious food.

Where does this kind of Jewish food originate?

Gefilte fish can be found in various versions around Europe—from Poland to Hungary to Russia. Depending on the region the gefilte fish will taste different—gefilte fish from one area is sweeter than gefilte fish from another area. Just as there are many different versions of gefilte there are just as many varieties of borscht depending on where you’re from. It’s the food that was eaten by the people.

When the Jewish people from these various countries came to the United States they brought their foods with them. Borscht, for example, isn’t uniquely Jewish. There’s Russian borscht, Polish borscht, Hungarian borscht and the flavors depended on what food grew in the varying regions. There is beet borscht in some areas and more cabbage-heavy borscht in other areas.

The tradition of pickling can be found in every culture. Peoples from nearly every culture have a variety of fermented vegetables. It’s not “Jewish food” but it is food that Jews brought with them to the US and is the origin of the deli. This is the food that we grew up with, the food that we know.

What do you hope to accomplish by re-imagining Ashkenazi food through The Gefilteria?

Pride. Some of the jokes about Ashkenazi food are pretty funny, we’ve got to admit, though they’re not founded in what we believe to be the essence of Ashkenazi cuisine. We are proud of the humble peasant roots of our ancestors and the creativity with which they made the most out of cabbage, beets, and potatoes.

We see The Gefilteria as a sort of laboratory, an exploration of some of the dishes of our past. The food that doesn’t make it onto the deli menus, the food that isn’t as exciting to people because they’re not used to eating it. Gefilte fish wasn’t supposed to be “ugly” food—it was a Sabbath food, eaten on special occasions. To have it be something put in a jar and without care saddens us. We’re not re-imagining it, but bringing it back to what it should be and what it has been. We want people to be excited and happy about eating this kind of old-world food.

It’s about upping Ashkenazi food in the minds of our generation. The idea that these foods are humble; beets, potatoes and cabbage are all ground vegetables, root vegetables and they possess that kind of ground energy. We call our business a roots-driven business because the roots are so powerful, this is our way of expressing our past-part theater, part art, all food.

What other Ashkenazi fare will The Gefilteria be re-introducing to people?

We’ve come across a phenomenal cold Borscht recipe. Kvass, which is the borscht base, is the “Jewish Kombucha” it’s probiotic, it has a nice tang like kombucha, but it is made without the added sugar. We’re doing a variety of fermented vegetables-sauerkraut, horseradish and pickles in the summer—the sides that would have been eaten with this type of European peasant food. We’re also doing a black and white cookie stick which will bring the two flavors together in a way that the traditional shape of a black and white cookie can’t.

How are you a part of the Slow Food, Farm-To-Table, DIY Food movement that’s happening in NYC now?

While we’re reimagining gefilte fish in a way that’s basic, we want to make sure we are sourcing them well also. We’re consulting with sustainable seafood companies, searching for the best ways to source the fish with a focus on sustainable fishing. We’re local vegetables and working only with seasonal vegetables.

We’re a craft-food business and we like the imagery of a laboratory. We’ll be selling Gefilte Fish kits using our sustainably sourced fish, our recipe and our manifesto in the hopes of giving gefilte fish back to the people.

We want to pay respect to this humble, European food as well as the deli and New York street-food. This is the food of the street and we want to be serving this food to the people on the street.

What can people expect at The Gefilteria launch?

We’ll be serving all of our food hors d’oeuvre-style. We’ve made a really beautiful carrot and beet horseradish that the gefilte will sit on which looks really beautiful. We’re serving our kvass as cocktails and we’ll have copies of our Manifesto for people to read. There will be music, nosh, and hopefully great conversation about gefilte. We’ll also be taking orders for Pesach—but the launch is mainly about the food and reintroducing it to Brooklyn.

Starting March 11th, we’ll be taking online orders for gefilte fish by the loaf or by the kit-in both cases it will come with horseradish. After the holiday we’ll be selling at fairs and festivals. We’ll be selling our kvass by the jar, seasonal fermented vegetables by the jar, and sauerkraut on line.

Five years from now, what’s happening with The Gefilteria?

What we hope to achieve is longevity. This food is healthy, cheap and delicious. It should be transformed and reinterpreted through every generation. Just because we don’t live in Eastern Europe where the food originated doesn’t mean it isn’t ours and can’t be enjoyed with our ever evolving taste buds.

(image credit: The Gefilteria)

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