Gefilte fish is supposedly an acquired taste. I would say it is more of a bad taste but some of us, over time, get used to it. The caveat being that we get used to our family recipe for homemade gefilte fish. In my family, I would say that the fish is a tradition that holds the family structure in place.
Technically, it involves buying 20–40 pounds (most likely 40) of deboned trout, whitefish, and pike. All I remember about the process is that it is ground, mushed together, and boiled. Then it is peppered and refrigerated. And the house stinks more than you can imagine for days.
This process is done twice a year for the fish to be served on two Jewish holidays, each for two days. We eat this appetizer both nights of Rosh Hashana and at both Passover Seders. At the meal, we always discuss the fish — is there enough pepper? Too much pepper? How is the texture? How does it compare to previous years? How is the horseradish? Is it strong enough?
And fish will sometimes travel home with some of the families. My mother always delivered some to her brother-in-law’s sister-in-law until that lovely sharp woman passed away last year at age 102. This is all part of the tradition.
But the real tradition, the important part of the fish, is the cabal preparing it. This began with my great-grandmother “Bubbie” who was an excellent cook and baker. She passed this down to my grandmother and her two sisters and their daughters. There are now two more generations of women who gather to join in the preparation of the fish. And, when they get older, I assume the following generation will join in the process.
They tried many times to write down the recipe but, in reality, there is a lot of just doing. It’s an art more than a science. And really, the flavor of the fish is really not that important. The real value is the gathering of the generations of women getting together for a half a day and kibitzing. This allows the people who really rule the family to regularly reconnect and fill each other in on the lives of their families. As the only unmarried male in the family, and I’m talking about 4 generations of lineage, I am somewhat cut off from the communication pipeline. Had I married a woman who was not hated, she would have been my conduit. My sister and my mother attempt to keep me in the loop but I probably miss out on at least half of the achievements, challenges, illnesses, and other milestones.
Men are allowed at the gatherings, but they are like exchange students who are welcome to absorb the culture but not really be a true part of it.
The women will tell you that their marriage is a partnership and that the men are, to a large extent, in charge, or at least in possession of equal power. But that really is not the case. The women run the family. I think it is usually the oldest in each generation who wields the most influence. My great-grandmother was the matriarch. Her three daughters, Ida, Rose, and Marion, all of who have long passed, took over with my grandmother hosting the cooking gala. My mother, now 84, currently hosts the gathering in her kitchen. I assume when her generation is eventually gone, my sister will become the host.