SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – I always wondered why Dora kept carp in the bathtub. It was a mystery to me. Regular as German clockwork, twice each year (as soon as the seasons began to turn, and fall and spring set in), she and my Oma would make a big trip to the city, and return with a mysterious, sloshing cooler.
Dora would laboriously bump it up the stairs, three flights to her little attic eyrie. I could hear Dora and the cooler clumping up each step, with a pause at every landing; yet she would never accept any help with this, her pet project. And there, in the old-fashioned claw-footed Victorian tub in the servant’s bathroom, Dora would plug the tub and pour out the contents of that cooler into the shin-deep water.
And so the big reddish-brown, or occasionally purply-black carp would swim, around and around in a never-ending oval, disgorging black trails of fishy excrement into the water Dora then changed every night, without fail. She let me feed it, sometimes, on a diet of stale matzoh and finely chopped lettuce. She only ever mumbled in Yiddish to me, but my grandmother would usually explain the process, as she rummaged through her pantry for the less-than-crisp half-empty boxes of Streit’s Tea Crackers.
“She’s cleaning the carp,” Oma would note, ever so patiently. “Dora wants them clean, inside and out.” I imagined her scrubbing away at the carp with her stiff brush by night, but still relished my small part in their cleaning by (kosher) fish food.
I was not allowed to name the carp. “They aren’t pets!” Oma would nearly scold. The fish upstairs were never discussed around the table. It turned out that the occasional carp in the bathtub was not something to be mentioned in polite company. I had no idea where Dora performed her ablutions otherwise, during their fishy visits, but she always turned up to the table primly starched, and smelling vaguely of bleach and Ivory soap.
But as the time for the autumn feast approached (in itself, also a mystery, as it was culinarily observed in our family without a name), the carp would disappear from Dora’s bathtub, as mysteriously as it had appeared. And my grandmother would drive Dora to the local fish market, sometimes several days in a row, in order to gather the specific species they were after.
Some varieties would sell out fast, and this would mean a series of very early-morning sorties. “Seven species!” my grandmother would proclaim. “We need seven different kinds of fish for this recipe.”
Strangest of all was the pike, the long, almost snake-like, pointy-snouted spotted fish packed in crushed ice; which Dora would behead with a cleaver and fillet by hand, picking out the smaller bones with tweezers, once back from the fish market. It took years for me to put two and two together, before I properly understood the fate of the bathtub carp; but the taste was delicious after all, and I came to comprehend why I was not allowed to name these mysterious visitors.
Dora never taught me cooking. Her recipes (and her secrets) died with her. It could have been her lack of English language skills; but more likely, my grandmother kept a broad social gulf between the land of the mistress and the lesser territory of her servant. And thus, my direct culinary instructions all came through Great Aunt Rivka, the seasonal visitor to the suburbs.
“Gefilte fish!” Rivka would exclaim. “It’s very complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.” First and foremost, I was cautioned, quite strictly, against the use of sugar in the recipe. “I know your Dora used sugar,” Rivka would murmur conspiratorially, “but I’m here to tell you, we don’t eat sweet gefilte fish. That’s for those people … you know, east of us,” she’d gesture. (It took me years to understand that she might not necessarily be pointing toward some imagined underwater kingdom in the Atlantic Ocean; but rather, much further east, as in Poland.)
So many of Rivka’s recipes commenced with sautéed onions, finely minced. “That’s your building block!” she’d cheer. “It all starts here. Just remember, clear pearly white to just the edge of golden brown, but not crispy, not for this. You want crispy, you cook it in schmaltz.”
She’d pull out her tattered notebook, and would briefly mention the seven species, as she opened to the gefilte fish recipe. “Freshwater fish,” she’d breathe at me. “That’s all we had. But … they’re a pain in the tuchus.”
Here, the conspiracy deepened. “Never tell your grandfather!” Rivka would crow. “Not a word! Not to anybody!” To this day, I feel a well-developed sense of guilt over what I am about to disclose. But, in the name of better gefilte fish in the 21st century, I can now reveal Rivka’s secret.
“Never serve it out of a jar,” she would begin. “Gefilte fish in a jar – that’s just cat food. Fancy-schmancy cat food. You’d be better off serving real cat food,” she’d continue. “It would be cheaper. It would taste better. Throw some horseradish on it, no one will know.”
But Rivka was not actually advocating the serving of boiled cat food patties on a silver platter. Once both Dora and my grandmother had died, however, the culinary cat was out of the bag. “Seven species?” Rivka would retort. “Feh! Who needs it? And the smelly carp? Get him out of my bathtub. No!”
I would stand silent, awaiting her instruction. “You want to get yourself a decent husband, you need to serve decent gefilte fish.” (Sadly, this was not to be the case for either of us, but it was a pleasant thought nonetheless.)
Grinning, her shaky old hands would pull my mother’s prized food processor into the center of the Formica countertop. Such an appliance, of course, was never to be found in my grandparents’ kitchen, but this was the changing of the guard. Rivka had brought with her a freezer bag from the city, packed full of pre-frozen fish fillets … of only two varieties! This was heresy.
“Salmon and whiting,” she’d beam. “Saltwater fish. Cleaner, tastier. Bought this way, faster. Better.” Into the food processor they’d go – no messy beheading, no tweezers necessary. Turning the ground fish into the largest ceramic bowl, she tossed in great handfuls of matzoh meal, frothy beaten eggs, the sautéed onions, and finely chopped parsley; all deftly formed into perfect oval patties, then deposited temporarily in the freezer.
For the stock, in the biggest pot in the house: bluefish heads with their beady staring eyes, gotten cheaply. Boiled for hours, then strained through muslin. At this point, Rivka would be sipping on some fine aged sherry, out of a rose-pink stemmed glass, and she’d measure glassfuls from the same dusty bottle into the boiling pot.
Handfuls of chopped parsley to start, and then fronds of dill, also whizzed through Mom’s Cuisinart. Golden circles of fresh sliced carrot came next, along with big pinches of kosher sea salt.
And, as the stock began to thicken and gel, the oval patties were retrieved from the freezer. With a flourish, Rivka always dramatically turned off the burner, while the soup still bubbled on a self-contained boil. “Slip them into the soup with a slotted spoon, one by one,” she intoned. “You can’t just dump them all in at once.”
The instant this was accomplished, she’d clap the lid on the still-percolating pot. “Leave it there!” Rivka commanded. “It cooks in the steam.” While this magic took place, we washed the Cuisinart bowl, and ran through roughly chopped fresh horseradish, juicy beets, and a small amount of white vinegar. This was lovingly dolloped into a crystal bowl, then refrigerated.
Rivka always served the soup course first, then the gefilte fish on a platter lined with chopped lettuce, each patty crowned with a carrot slice. Tiny silver spoons administered the horseradish from the delicate cut-crystal bowl.
“Best gefilte fish EVER!” the happy eaters would exclaim. “What, better than cat food?” Rivka would retort; and then look sideways at me, and laugh.