Gefilte Fish and Memories of Childhood

What’s your “comfort food” memory of childhood?  Most of us have at least one:  for me, it’s fried egg sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies.  Many parents welcome home children with special meals, because for everyone involved, that food carries strong connotations of love and family.

For Oliver Sacks, that food was gefilte fish, the special dish eating primarily on the Sabbath.  I’ve never eaten it before, and, in light Sacks’ description of its preparation, I can only be grateful for that.  The fish, usually carp, was delivered live, swimming in a pail of water.  It was skinned, boned & fed into a grinder, then mixed with raw eggs, matzo meal, pepper and sugar.   The mix was formed into balls and then poached.  Then, as it cooled, “a jelly of an extraordinarily delicate sort coalesced” on those fish balls.  Yum.

After he left his mother’s house [and, if you know Sacks’ story, you know he and his mother never spoke again after she denounced him for being gay], he despaired of ever tasting it again, until he found an extraordinary  housekeeper who was able to replicate the recipe perfectly. [Sacks notes the irony of Helen, “African-American, a good, churchgoing Christian” making this “Jewish delicacy.”]  He enjoyed Helen’s gefilte fish for 17 years, but after she died, he lost his taste for it:  all of us know the futility of trying to find in a store the taste of a precious homemade food.

However, in his last weeks of life [Sacks died August 30th, 2015], when his queasiness made unappealing almost every other food, he “rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish.”  He could hardly eat anything–he had difficulty swallowing–but he was able to eat a bit [an “aliquot,” he writes] of gefilte fish every few hours, and it was primarily this food that sustained him. He writes, “Deliveries now arrive daily from one shop or another:  Murray’s on Broadway, Russ & Daughters, Sable’s, Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, the 2nd Ave Deli–they all make their own gefilte fish, and I like it all (though none compares to my mother’s or Helen’s).”

It is, however, the last paragraph of this short reflection, poignantly published in “The New Yorker” on September 14th, 2015, that I find so moving.  Saks closes his reflection this way:  “While I have conscious memories of gefilte fish from about the age of four, I suspect that I acquired my taste for it even earlier, for, with its abundant, nutritious jelly, it was often given to infants in Orthodox households as they moved from baby foods to solid food.  Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, eighty-two years ago.”

As I read that, I couldn’t help think of the Eucharist, of course, and how moved I am almost every time a very, very young child holds out her hand to receive.  I know different traditions and even different pastors have different views of this practice, but I love it.  In my experience, every single young child I have communed has a demonstrable sense of joy and anticipation of what they are about to consume–and whether or not they can articulate a theology of the sacrament is quite beside the point.  The Christian church has long affirmed the practice of ushering Christians out of life with communion; more of us should follow the lead of our Orthodox brothers and sisters and embrace the practice of having that same nourishing, loving food usher them in.

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