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Ma Nishtanah? Gefilte Fish Scarce this Year
by New York Times
Erik Antes spent most of Sunday, the day before the start of Pesach on the phone behind the counter at BenZ’s Gourmet in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, fielding frantic phone calls.

“Yes, yes, I understand; I’m sorry, we’re all out,” Mr. Antes, the store manager, said into the receiver. “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. Next year, maybe.”

Mr. Antes hung up and let out a long sigh. “I really feel for these people,” he said. “I’m not crazy about it, but for most of us, what’s Passover without gefilte fish?”

Why is this year unlike all other years? Because of the 11th plague — the polar vortex — which created a shortage of gefilte fish, the appetizer equally loathed and loved by generations of Jews.

Eating gefilte fish is not a requirement of the annual Seder, as the recitation of the four questions and the eating of matzo are. But it is part of the holiday tradition in many Jewish homes to put out, in addition to the brisket and macaroons, the small, white patties of gefilte fish.

BenZ’s posted a warning on its Facebook page months ago, imploring shoppers to get orders in early, and had to stop taking them two weeks ago. At Weingarten’s, one of 18 fishmongers in the Hasidic section of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the supplier sent two crates of whitefish in the most recent order, instead of the usual 20. When shops started running out in Manhattan, Motty Koth, a senior vice president at A & B Famous Fish, a large producer in Paterson, N.J., spent Sunday night shuttling gefilte loaves in the back of his minivan.

“In all my years making gefilte fish, it has never been this bad,” said Benzion Raskin, the bearded owner of BenZ’s. “I can’t remember a time with so little fish.”

The main ingredient in modern gefilte fish is whitefish, along with the traditional carp and possibly pike or mullet or, for the cosmopolitan, salmon. The vast majority of whitefish used by fishmongers, gefilte makers and home cooks in the United States comes from fisheries on the Great Lakes and in western Canada, according to Randall Copeland, vice president for operations at Manischewitz, the largest producer of gefilte fish in the world.

Though it may finally feel like spring in the rest of the country, up to four feet of ice still lingers on the lakes, which froze almost entirely during the winter.

“This isn’t dropping a line in the water and hauling fish in,” said Ronald Kinnunen, a fisheries specialist at Michigan Sea Grant, a cooperative run by Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. “These are huge nets, hundreds or thousands of feet in size, and costing $8,000 to $10,000. In these conditions, it’s foolish to try fishing.”

Manischewitz was largely spared the shortage because it buys its fish up to a year in advance, setting orders with suppliers for a mix of fresh and frozen fish. “We’ve been through enough lean times in the past to have learned our lesson and plan ahead,” Mr. Copeland said.

Along with matzo and cake mixes and other “boxed products,” gefilte fish is one of the top three sellers for the company. Even so, the fish mix this year was heavier on frozen fish than fresh.

Meanwhile, mom-and-pop stores like BenZ’s and kosher kingpins like A & B Famous were scrambling for a dwindling supply of whitefish to make their gefilte or to sell raw fish to those few who still make their own. The further down the retail food chain, the harder the fish is to come by.

Aviva Barodkin was among the loyal BenZ’s shoppers who got their orders in early. “My mother-in-law schlepped all the way over from Borough Park to help me make it,” she said. “She’s been in and out of the hospital all week, and every time she calls, all she can talk about is ‘What’s going to happen to my fish?’ ”

Doba Tiefenbrun, who grew up in a Lubavitcher commune in Sheffield, England, and now lives in Crown Heights with her American husband, perhaps summed it up best: “Do I like the taste? Not really,” she said. “But do I like the tradition? Absolutely.”

In Yiddish, gefilte means stuffed or filled. Gefilte fish originated among German Jewry in the Middle Ages as a way to stretch food and to have a meal on the Sabbath, when no cooking is allowed. Some amount of fish, typically cheap carp, would be chopped up, mixed with vegetables and matzo meal or stale bread, and then stuffed back into the fish skin for roasting or poaching. (Now, almost all gefilte fish is skinless.) The result was a filling, thrifty dish that could be served cold on Saturday nights.

“It’s the Jewish madeleine,” said Niki Russ Federman, among the fourth generation serving up house-made gefilte fish at Russ & Daughters on East Houston Street on the Lower East Side. “It’s that food that has the ability to transport you in time and connect you to your lineage.”

In the 19th century, whitefish became the preferred ingredient, for its delicate taste, though some still use carp, which has a stronger flavor. With the rise of manufactured food in the postwar era, companies like Manischewitz began canning and jarring their processed fish, a product many modern Jews love to hate.

“It may taste like cat food, but that’s why I love it,” said Peter Shelsky, one of the owners of Shelsky’s, a three-year-old locavore fish store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. “It’s like, why do Hawaiins love spam so much?"

The store sold out of its artisanal gefilte fish weeks ago, but stocked some Manischewitz jars just in case.
Wendy Greene grabbed two of them on Sunday. “I don’t think I’d like the real stuff, because to me, this is Passover,” she said.

In Williamsburg, Herman Weingarten, who since 1982 has been running the shop that his father opened 50 years ago, said he could not remember such a bad year for whitefish. Homemade gefilte is critical among Orthodox Jews, who are wary of processed food for fear that leavening — which is forbidden during Passover — could mistakenly get mixed in.

“This year, I’ve been giving everybody just a little bit of fish,” Mr. Weingarten said. “Better that everybody have something than some have nothing.”

Down the street at Tauber’s Fish in Williamsburg, English, Yiddish, Spanish and the smell of fish filled the air. Michael Landy had come all the way from the Upper West Side, as he has for the past three decades. For the first time, he was leaving almost empty-handed. “I had to settle for carp,” he said.

Inside the shop, it was hectic, with shoppers handling logs of frozen fish like bricks of gold.

“What whitefish shortage?” shouted a clerk, who said he was too busy to give a name. “There’s nothing, zip, zilch. A shortage means we have whitefish, but there’s nothing.”



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