In the more than 30 years that Robert Elam has been slicing fish for gefilte fish, he’s never tasted the iconic Jewish holiday appetizer. “I’ve had several customers offer to bring it in,” the Crosby’s Seafood store manager says with a nervous chuckle that makes clear he’s always politely declined.
Elam’s skittishness is understandable: Gefilte fish’s reputation has been pummeled by commercial versions of the sculpted ground fish. The first mass-produced patties had a knack for crumbling and losing their color in the can. While the 1963 invention of broth that stayed gelled in the jar helped, even the improved variety has been kindly described as flavorless mush.
But Elam has inadvertently played an integral role in sustaining another, tastier gefilte fish tradition. At least since the early 1980s, Crosby’s has catalogued the itemized receipts of Jewish women who drag out their grinders in preparation for Passover Seders or meals served at either end of the High Holy Days, which started on Monday with Rosh Hashanah and end next Wednesday with Yom Kippur. The store’s stack of paperwork represents a unique, usable archive of Lowcountry Jewish cooking.
“I’m in there, absolutely,” says Cindi Solomon of Sullivan’s Island. “I call and ask to have the same fish he gave Joan Berlinsky. It’s just a cool feeling to be part of it: It’s bigger than a cookbook.”
It’s also more revealing, since sisterhood members may be reluctant to publish the secrets of their break-the-fast showstopper in a community cookbook. The purchase record shows exactly which fish were favored by which cook. It also establishes decisively that Charleston has pioneered a way of making gefilte fish so removed from the American norm that Jeffrey Yoskowitz, who in 2012 launched an artisan gefilte fish company from Brooklyn, N.Y., had never heard of it. In Charleston, gefilte fish is made from sheepshead, grouper, snapper and spottail bass.
“A lot of Northern people come down, and they’re used to different types of fish,” Elam says. “More like the whitefish, the carp. We can’t get that.”
“I think a purist might say it has to be carp,” says Yoskowitz, who makes The Gefilteria’s gefilte fish with pike because of sustainability concerns. “But if you look at gefilte fish as a technique, you can take a more descriptivist approach and consider any fish gefilte.”
The word “gefilte” in fact means “stuffed” in Yiddish. Originally, gefilte fish was packed back into the skin from whence the flesh was freed. Jewish cooks didn’t come up with the idea: According to Gil Marks’ authoritative “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” the first published recipe for gefuelten hechden, or stuffed pike, appeared in a 1350 German cookbook. Wealthy Catholics in Germany and France were fond of serving the elaborate dish at Lent.
Jews also had a religious reason for gravitating toward gefilte fish. Under Jewish law, it’s forbidden to separate desirable items from undesirable ones during the Sabbath. But the rule becomes vexing when an eater cuts into a fillet and exposes a phalanx of pin bones. To get around the problem, dinner hosts could serve meat, which in kosher households means striking all of the milk, butter and farmer’s cheese from the menu, or they could deal with the bones beforehand.
In the middle ages, cooks deboned the fish, mashed its flesh with onions and matzah meal, stuffed the mixture back into the fish, sewed it up and roasted it. (Poorer families would fetch an unwanted fish skin from the local fishmonger and cram it with breadcrumbs.) But by the 1500s, cooks began to dispense with the theatrics of the whole fish and form the ground-up lake fish into standalone logs, quenelles and patties for poaching.
“Traditionally, you would eat it with horseradish and carrots,” Yoskowitz says. “The joke was that the carrot was like the yarmulke on top.”
For the women making the gefilte fish, the endeavor was considerably less comical. “People used to bring a whole live carp into the bathtub and have it there for a week,” Yoskowitz says, explaining the immediate appeal of industrial gefilte fish. Manischewitz now sells 1.5 million jars a year.
“It’s a very messy thing,” says Joan Berlinsky of West Ashley, the source of Solomon’s recipe. “You get dirty and smell like fish. Last time I made it, my grinder stopped working three times. The fish man, Robert, did not skin it himself, so the little bones and the skin were blocking the flow. It was a three-hour chore turned into a six-hour chore.”
Berlinsky, 83, is one of the last local cooks making gefilte fish by hand. “A lot of the older ones aren’t doing it now,” Elam says. “I’d say it’s probably dropped in half.” For Passover, Elam filled eight orders.
Nobody’s sure exactly how Crosby’s became the keeper of Charleston’s gefilte fish index. Berlinsky remembers there was only one other major fish market downtown when she moved here in 1956, so her friends naturally bought their ingredients at Crosby’s.
Elam says his uncle remembers an elderly lady years ago calling and explaining gefilte fish. “I guess word of mouth got around, but he doesn’t remember her name,” Elam says. Her order form apparently wasn’t permanently retained.
Often, customers will ask Elam to grind the fish for them, but he’ll only consent to skin, bone and fillet. He’s also responsible for finding the proper blend of fish, since he doesn’t always have the same amount of snapper or trout to sell as he did the previous Rosh Hashanah.
“Some of them are more picky,” he says. “They want like four different types. But most of them want three different types of fish, so I try to balance it out.”
As for Berlinksy, “I like a firm white fish. I think a lot of the older people used flounder, but I don’t think they knew about grouper. I like grouper and I like snapper and I like sheepshead. And I get a little piece of mahi mahi once in a while.”
Now that young Jewish chefs are reclaiming and reinventing their traditional foods, slipping a jalapeno into the gefilte fish mix is not unheard of in Louisiana. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon sometimes finds its way into gefilte fish. But the community-wide embrace of fish that isn’t sourced from the Great Lakes is rare, Yoskowitz says.
After scanning a pile of yellow copies torn from triplicate forms and tucked into a folder marked “Passover,” Elam looks up. “We mainly try to use local fish,” he says.