Given that everything from pickles to Pop-Tarts has gotten an artisanal overhaul, it was only a matter of time before someone took on the seemingly lost cause of gefilte fish. The bête noir of the Passover table, it's famously lumpen and beige, all but artisan-immune. Fortunately, Liz Alpern, Jackie Lilinshtein, and Jeffrey Yoskowitz enjoy a challenge: They decided to take on not only gefilte fish but Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine as a whole. The three created Gefilteria, a "boutique producer of traditional Old World foods" that launched last month.
Yoskowitz, Alpern, and Lilinshtein (below, from left) have given their eponymous product an aesthetic and sustainable boost, shaping whitefish, pike, and wild salmon into a loaf attractive enough to banish all associations with the jarred, jellied nuggets on supermarket shelves. They're also turning out horseradish, borscht, pickles, and black-and-white cookies. They hope to add more to their menu as the business grows—which, considering they've already sold out their gefilte fish for Passover, looks like a safe bet. I spoke with Yoskowitz about his burgeoning business and what it means, as Gefilteria's manifesto states, to reclaim the glory of Ashkenazi food.
So where did this idea come from?
It really developed as almost an outgrowth of what was happening with [Jewish] delis in the past two years. I was at a food conference talking about sustainable food and was thinking a lot about gefilte fish and how come we haven't tackled that yet. I have friends who had started pasture-raised kosher meat businesses or were making live-cultured organic pickles out in California, and I wanted to know when gefilte fish would get its turn. I started figuring out how to make it to meet the needs of us young Brooklyn Jews who want our fish to be sustainable and taste good and look good. We wanted a gefilte fish our generation could be proud of.
How long did it take to make Gefilteria a reality?
I came up with the initial concept last year. It took three months to realize this wasn't a far-out idea, and nine months for meetings and imagining what this could be. It was just an idea until Liz and Jackie got onboard and said, "We can do this, let's provide gefilte fish people can serve that meets all of these needs." We had our launch party in March and people were so excited about it. That would have been enough to achieve our vision, just getting people psyched about gefilte fish.
How did you develop your recipes?
It was different with each product. With the gefilte fish, I went home and worked with my grandmother, and Liz looked through her cookbooks and talked with [Jewish food authority] Joan Nathan and worked on a recipe. We tried so many types of fish and mixed up all sorts of herbs and spices. We looked at 19th- and 18th-century recipes that called for sautéed mushrooms and onions. We decided to keep it simple and to stick to the roots of it all, and to make something we would be excited about eating on a regular basis. We focused on three areas: There was texture, which we wanted to be on the denser side. With taste, we tried different proportions of salt and sugar—we wanted something that wouldn't be too Hungarian or Polish, but could meld [different styles]. And we also cared a lot about aesthetics. That was the biggest challenge: We wanted to come up with a way it would look beautiful when served on a platter. That's why we went with a loaf that has salmon in the middle—it's for both taste and look. So it's not a white or beige blob.
What kind of gefilte fish did you grow up eating?
I grew up eating it in log form made fresh. My grandmother made it when I was really young. I grew up in New Jersey with a few different stores around me, Jewish stores where you could get fresh gefilte loaves. But each year the recipe changed or one place wasn't doing it well, so it became a headache for my family. Finally, one family friend started sourcing it from Staten Island, and we relied on him. Tragically, he got cancer last year, so there was nowhere to get gefilte fish. It was my opportunity to step in.
I'm guessing that you didn't consider buying a jar of Manischewitz.
That wasn't even an option for my family.
So what does your grandmother think of your gefilte fish?
She's excited to see it, though she doesn't quite understand what's happening. She's in her late 80s and I can't even explain to her that young, hip Brooklyn is celebrating these foods that she takes for granted, having grown up in a shtetl in Ukraine. Jackie's family is Russian, and at first was very hesitant about the idea—these are foods they eat regularly, and the idea of taking them and giving them a sustainable, slow food-style twist—they didn't understand that people would be interested. They worried about the kvass in particular, but they were sold on it. Hopefully I'll win my grandmother over.
On your website, your manifesto declares that Gefilteria's mission is, in part, about "reclaiming the glory of Ashkenazi food." But your grandparents' reaction to what you're doing speaks to that generational divide over the idea of remaking old-country peasant food for the artisanal crowd. Can you talk about that a bit, and what it means to reclaim Ashkenazi food?
When I go to Israel, my cousins laugh at Ashkenazi food, as do most Israelis. It lost out to Sephardic food, which made more sense in that climate. In New York, there's also this allure of Sephardic cuisine, but there's a way that people put down Ashkenazi food that upsets me. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan wrote that every cuisine around the world makes sense except for the [Ashkenazi] food of his own heritage. He was speaking about Ashkenazi food as it was post-1950; I don't think he understood the actual benefits or artisanal quality. For pickles, we're making lacto-fermented live-cultured pickles, which are incredible for digestion. Same thing with borscht: We use beets that have fermented, which makes them more digestible and gives you the energy you need in cold weather. Kvass, same thing—it's a probiotic drink. We call it the Jewish kombucha for fun. It's so easy to denigrate gefilte fish because it's made from carp, which is this bottom-feeding fish. [Ashkenazi food] is about preserving food for the year, fermenting foods, and mixing heavy foods with foods that will help you digest those heavy foods. People are constantly emailing me to make all these foods from Europe that haven't made it here. I want to bring them back, to challenge people's assumptions about what this food is and what it can be. It's hard to compete with people's memories, but I can work on changing assumptions.
Image source: Gefilteria.com; portrait by Danny Ghitis