The carp in the bathtub

In the Brooklyn of my youth, we didn't know from ahi tuna, but carp made good pets -- and great gefilte fish, too.

Published April 11, 2001 12:39AM (EDT)

As I was earning my reputation as a foodie in Manhattan in my 20s, when my gluttony was goaded by a ludicrously permissive Time Inc. corporate expense account and aided by the mega-burning metabolism of youth, when I was a habitué of Bernardin and Bouley, when I once shared the corner banquette at Le Cirque with the owner, Sirio, himself, I secretly harbored a deep embarrassment: While I acclimated to the delights of nine-course, wine-paired tasting menus and performed something akin to Talmudic scholarship on the Zagat's guidebooks, I suffered from a sense of guilt about my continuing passion for the comparably crude Eastern European Jewish cuisine of my childhood holidays.

It undermined my pretensions of culinary mavenhood to have such an unremitting lust for food that would be considered bad, if not awful, by the gourmand crowd. It was as if the chef at Lutece were caught pounding Ring-Dings. How could I overcome my humble roots in the Ashkenazi shtetlach and assimilate into America's ruling class of elite WASPs if, on the way to hearing a string quartet at Carnegie Hall, I swooned outside Carnegie Deli? What good were my Princeton degree and my rumpled khakis and button-down oxford broadcloths and Top-Siders if I still craved matzo balls and stuffed cabbage?

My ancestors in Poland and Russia didn't have the benefit of fresh, certified-organic produce grown by obsessive overachievers who had shed their professional careers to go back to the land. I'm not convinced that my forebears even had vegetables. They didn't have fruity, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oils, so they had to settle for the less mellifluous "schmaltz," aka congealed chicken fat, surely nature's purest form of cholesterol. They didn't prepare carpaccio or cook meat juicy rare or even a tolerable medium, partly because the kosher dietary laws forbid eating the blood of animals (which, after all, is what makes them taste so good), but also because their meat was so tough that you had to cook the hell out of it for countless hours to break down the sinew.

The inscrutable laws of kashrut also forbid mixing dairy and meat, which is Yahweh's way of keeping the Jews from ever eating as well as the Italians (who, I'm convinced, are the real chosen people, at least from a gastronomic perspective). And in the Ukrainian outback the Yids certainly didn't have their own deep-sea divers to catch day-boat scallops especially for their kitchens (as I recall was specified on the menu at Bouley).

They didn't know from ahi tuna. For fish, they had to make do with the lowly carp and pike, which don't have the delicacy of flavor that makes a good carpaccio or the sturdier character demanded by the grill. Instead, Jewish cooks mush up the bland piscine flesh into weird otherworldly, elliptically shaped lumpen balls of cold whitish mystery meat known as gefilte fish. ("Gefilte" is from the Yiddish and German for "stuffed," since sometimes the concoction is inserted back into the fish's skin.) To my mind it's the signature dish of scrappy Ashkenazi cuisine or, better yet, our tribe's equivalent of Proust's madeleine: If as a worldly adult you still love gefilte fish, that's probably because it evokes the warm nostalgia of childhood.

For me it brings back memories of Passover in the promised land -- the leafy outlying areas of the borough of Queens, N.Y. -- at the home of Grandpa Julie, the Plumber to the Stars. Julie was famous in the family for his emergency calls to the leading hotels and apartment houses of Manhattan, especially the time he gallantly rode in on his Cadillac Coupe de Ville and fixed Elizabeth Taylor's toilet. Once, in a less urgent situation, he installed a washer-dryer set for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. But his greatest claim to fame was the time Marlene Dietrich made homemade chicken soup for him because he had a bit of a cold when he showed up for a service call.

My Grandma Pearl made a therapeutic chicken soup, too, with matzo balls that had an admirable balance between fluffy softness and structural integrity. Her Passover seders always began with an irresistible appetizer trio of the soup, gefilte fish (I liked it so much that I always insisted on a double serving) and her homemade specialty, chicken liver combined with congealed chicken fat and onions and chopped finely by hand (this was in the B.C. era, before Cuisinart) and served in mushy globular lumps that didn't resemble anything found in nature but looked much like a brownish sibling of the strange fish balls. (The dish was spectacularly inexpensive: Even today, raw chicken livers sell for only a buck a pound at upscale markets in the beaux quartiers, so imagine how cheap they were eons ago in Queens.)

Then there was roast chicken with side dishes that were generous meals in themselves. She served stuffed cabbage, which only sounds like a vegetable course but is really a carnivore's debauchery. The "stuffing" is a gargantuan meatball of ground beef and the omnipresent onions, wrapped in a thin layer of green cabbage and drenched in a spicy tomato sauce. Grandpa Julie never tired of calling it "stuffed garbage." Another favorite was kasha varnishkas: bow-tie-shaped egg noodles with buckwheat groats, also popular partly because it was cheap. (This was before Jews became hippies and discovered that whole grains had healthy fiber.)

But Grandma Pearl wasn't the real legend among the female chefs in the clan. That honor -- and my favorite piece of family culinary lore -- belongs to her mother, my Great-Grandma Minnie, and the story of the fish swimming in her bathtub before it was slaughtered to become gefilte fish.

Minnie's four children had it hard growing up in the Brooklyn public schools with the surname Putzer, which in Yiddish-savvy New York would have been like being known as "Dickhead" in Nebraska. But as a compensation they had a mother who brought over culinary techniques from the Old World. These traditions still thrived in the Brooklyn of the late 1940s. At the marketplace she would pick out a live chicken to be decapitated on the spot. Then she would pluck its feathers herself, which she called "flicking" the bird.

My mother, Elaine, who was a small child at the time, often accompanied Minnie and still recalls the "terrible smell" of the poultry market, but she loved it when the butchers would let her eat the raw egg yolks of the unlaid eggs taken from inside the hens, which decades later she remembers longingly as a wonderful delicacy. The chicken would still be warm when Minnie got it back to their apartment in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, near the ramps to the Manhattan Bridge. (This was long before Williamsburg was colonized by artists and youthful hipsters.)

Unlike roast chicken, gefilte fish had the advantage of being a dish that you could prepare well in advance, since it was served chilled and kept well in the refrigerator. But the special and undeniably strange rules about Passover made it impossible for Minnie to prepare the appetizer course ahead, which is where the live fish in the bathtub comes in. But first a bit of background about a bygone tradition so all this will begin to make sense.

Everyone, even the most goyish, knows that for the weeklong celebration of Passover -- the springtime festival of the Hebrews' liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt -- Jews aren't allowed to eat bread that has risen with yeast. For that matter, they can't consume any grain that isn't completely cooked within 18 minutes of contact with water. This is a way of remembering that the Jews had to flee Egypt in great haste and didn't have time to order any Chinese takeout -- not even a quick stir-fry -- let alone wait for their dough to rise.

Not eating real bread for a few days -- such a nice symbolic gesture, no? But being Jews, we can't leave it at that. We have to overachieve in the most sensational way. So for Passover it's not enough to abstain from leavened bread or long-cooked grains, which are called "chametz." You have to systematically purge your kitchen of any of these offending foodstuffs. But that's the easy part. Next, you have to thoroughly clean any surface that has had contact with chametz; to the truly observant Jew this means taking a Q-tip or a toothpick to the tiny crevices and hidden recesses of the stove and fridge. As for the utensils that cooked chametz throughout the year -- that long wooden stirring spoon, for instance -- well, you have to either burn them (that's right) or sell them to someone who isn't Jewish and then buy them back after the holiday. (Today there are Web sites that facilitate this transaction.)

Needless to say, cleaning the kitchen for Passover is a real pain in the tuchis; it takes several days, and you can't get started preparing any part of the Passover feast until it's done. So Great-Grandma Minnie would have to wait until her house was completely kosher for Passover to kill the fish and chop it up. She would buy a live carp at the Williamsburg fish market and let it swim in the bathtub for several days while she purged the chametz.

That's when little Elaine, around age 4 or 5, had her fun. She would spend hours at her grandmother's apartment playing with the fish, treating it like a species of urban pet. She watched it swim and fed it lettuce. She couldn't bear it when her grandfather would swiftly chop off its head. (Decades later, she realized that her experience of love and loss was fairly common among Jewish girls of the period when she found it retold in a children's book called "The Carp in the Bathtub" by Barbara Cohen.)

But the story didn't end there. Elaine had something of a mischievous streak, and one year she fed the fish a potent Ajax-like household cleanser that she found near the bathtub, a detergent with the brand name Babbo.

As the family began consuming the first course of the seder, the gefilte fish, her Uncle Larry said to Elaine: "Look what happened to your friend."

"I fed it Babbo," she blurted out in retaliation for his cruel jibe.

"You poisoned it?!" he exclaimed, genuinely shocked.

Fortunately, the dosage wasn't deadly. Minnie lived to age 89, and her funeral was a series of tributes to the joys of her from-scratch cooking. But it would have been harder for me if I hadn't stopped for a gluttonous lunch beforehand at Pastrami King a few blocks from the mortuary in Queens.

The strange power of gefilte fish for the Jewish people has far deeper roots than my own family's escapades in New York's Outer Boroughs. Historian Claudia Rosen, author of "A Book of Jewish Food," writes that fish has symbolized fertility ever since Jacob told his children that they should multiply like fish in the sea. As for carp in particular, the river fish was introduced to Europe in the 17th century by Jewish traders who brought it from China on the silk route. While preserved salt herring was the staple protein source of their weekday diet, carp -- a fresh fish and thus more costly -- became the big splurge that they saved for the special Sabbath dinner.

With the Diaspora and the newfound prosperity of Ashkenazi Jews in the West, it's hard to believe that the humble gefilte fish was once a delicacy. Today we still have a fish fetish, but it's more likely to be for smoked salmon, which is much more expensive, and highly esteemed by gentile foodies, too.

I've heard of attempts to modernize gefilte fish for gourmands adhering to the new religion of Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters as well as the more ancient covenant of Abraham. On the Internet you can find recipes for ahi tuna gefilte fish. I've heard of Mexican Jews who make gefilte veracruzana, smothering the carp cake with a spicy tomato and pepper sauce. I've resisted these nouvelle concoctions, though. If I'm enjoying a Cal-Ital sauce, then I'm happy to have it with a Mediterranean or Pacific fish. If I'm eating white-fleshed fish mixed with matzo meal and eggs, then make it carp. Without the bland taste and the weird jelly on the side, it's not the same.

When I was a burgeoning foodie in New York, gefilte fish and chopped chicken liver were high on my shortlist of guilty gastronomy. But then, at 24, on my first culinary pilgrimage to Paris, I had an unexpected experience that changed my entire opinion of Jewish cuisine. For my very first meal in Paris I found the perfect old-school bistro on the Ile St. Louis and ordered two dishes with utterly musical-sounding names: "pâté de foie de volaille" and "quenelles de maison." In English, that's an appetizer of chopped chicken liver, much like my grandmothers made, and a weird elliptically shaped ball of bland chopped white-fleshed fish, much like gefilte.

It just sounds so much more like gourmandise in French.

By Alan Deutschman

Alan Deutschman is the author of "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs."

MORE FROM Alan Deutschman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------