The Barrel Always Smells of Herring I: How Do You Remember A Fish?

“La caque sent toujours le hareng.”

“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten

Blynai with sour cream and herring
Blynai – potato pancakes – in Vilnius, served with red onions, pickled herring, sour cream, and mushrooms. These are all considered to be delicious things in the non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanian palates alike. That was a good lunch. Photo mine, March 2015.

I grew up with herring. I’m not saying this to be a snob or prove my authenticity. I say this because pickled herring was constantly present in the house where I grew up. I was introduced as a young child to herring by my South African grandfather, who would stay with us for two months a year in our house in New York. He ate pickled herring almost every day for breakfast at the time – and he still, at 94, enjoys all forms of pickled or salted herring immensely. So by the age of six, I was hooked on pickled herring – be it with dill, cream sauce, “wine sauce,” or juniper berries. (As I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, herring anywhere can send me back to my childhood.) My grandparents did not have to be present for herring either – my mother constantly kept pickled herring in the refrigerator. This was partly because she herself enjoyed the saltier varieties of herring on a sandwich. In addition, guests were often served, especially on Jewish holidays, a forshpizer of chopped herring – the leftovers of which were happily consumed by someone in the family. By the time I left for college, I had an insatiable and very homely love of pickled fish. One could say this was unusual for my generation – unless I had, like so many of my fellow hipsters, been introduced to herring at IKEA or a modern Jewish deli. (The former is not bad, the latter often does well too.) But one could also say that having grown up in New York, undoubtedly the preserved fish capital of North America – that it was destined to happen.

Russ and Daughters herring platter
A platter of herrings at the Russ and Daughters cafe extension in New York. Expensive but worth it! (Photo mine, August 2015.)

For many New Yorkers of all faiths, herring is a Jewish food. The city was introduced to pickled herring first by the Dutch colonists and Scottish and Irish migrants, but the most common forms of pickled herring today are those that Eastern European Jews brought with them from Poland and Lithuania in the late 19th century along with techniques for smoking fish, uses of fish, and myriad preparations of river fish. Today, shops like Russ and Daughters and Raskin’s do brisk business with a Jewish clientele seeking pickled herring, and most supermarkets with a large Jewish clientele carry at least a few brands of mass-market pickled herring. Herring is remembered by many Ashkenazi Jews as a mark of some bygone era of proper Judaism – or as a taste of a now-dying generation. Others use herring to prove their adherence to either Orthodox authenticity or a vaguely-shaped idea of Ashkenazi or “Yiddish” culture (which are sometimes combined). Meanwhile, the great Nordic obsession of the 21st-century Anglo-American bourgeoisie has catapulted the herring – also a food of “ordinary” Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders – into the realm of “gourmet” cuisine. You can now spend too much money on “Scandinavian” or “Jewish” herrings at the chic boutiques of SoHo and the Upper East Side. Herring is Jewish and homely and Scandinavian and haute cuisine all at the same time. And by some, it is loved.

We forget – I too forget – in these reveries that herring was once an oft-maligned food of poverty. In Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and far before that – herring, salted or pickled, was the everyday staple of the Ashkenazi working and peasant classes. It was cheap – incredibly cheap, as it was fished, preserved, and shipped in huge quantities for the day. It was readily available and filling. And, it was consumed by pretty much everyone in much of the region – herring was a common protein source for Jews and non-Jews alike in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. As documented by Michael Wex, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden separately, a fairly typical meal for a Jew in late 19th-century Lithuania – be he in a yeshiva, working at a factory, or at a shop – would have been a piece of herring on black bread. The fish was so common that the Latvian-born British Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant described the diet of his childhood as such: “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” Herring was so common as to almost be hated by many who ate it every day. Meat was the luxury that was craved, as one Yiddish-language song opines, by those who only had “a spoiled little herring.” That said, herring also tied Ashkenazi Jewry to a wider world that spanned the Baltic and North Atlantic – an entire economy based on herring and cod, and a network of cultural influence from northern Iceland to Russia closely paralleled by the fish. (This world was brilliantly documented by Douglas Murray in his recent book Herring Tales.) Thousands of Jews across Baltic Europe, and in England, the Netherlands, and France, were also employed by the herring industry, including the father of the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall.  Herring was, for many, the food on the table and what put food on the table.

Herring + tea + apple
Herring on rye toast with tea and an apple – the Ashkenazi meal of champions. I used this photo for my herring article for Roads and Kingdoms. Normally I would put less herring on, but I was celebrating finishing my master’s degree. (Photo mine, June 2015)

I’ll discuss global herring and the herring economy in a later post. For now, let us return to the United States and Canada, where memories and tastes shifted. Firstly, tastes shifted away from herring and foods like it. In the years after World War II, increasingly prosperous Ashkenazi Jews assimilated both into whiteness and “middle-class values” in America and the food habits and tastes of their Christian neighbors. Herring – that sour, fishy, smelly food of poverty and un-Americanness, was out, canned pears and mayonnaise were in. But then herring became stylish. Firstly, the increasing fascination with new flavors by the post-hippie yuppies of the 1980’s soon expanded beyond spicy and savory to the pickled – exactly where herring sat. Then there was the fact that Scandinavian products – including herring – became an increasing marker of class status in the late 20th century. Professionals who bought Scandinavian furniture and worshipped “Swedish design” also became interested in the herring sandwiches that fed the architects of Göteborg and Norrköping. These expanded tastes showed what Pierre Bourdieu would consider a marker of elite status, a proof of high social and economic capital that was a far cry from herring’s proletarian origins. Meanwhile, a new generation of Ashkenazi Jews, became interested in the food of their own ancestors and that of their Sephardi brothers and in other aspects of their heritage like Yiddish – encouraged, of course, by the increasing commodification and celebration of heritage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – became enamored of herring as well. In addition, in a time when the tastes of Jews in the US had shifted – both to new spices and flavors and to the mainstream sweet and bland flavors of white America, herring also provided access to a memory of the “good old days” for those disturbed by the change. Russ and Daughters was now not just an excellent place for pickled fish, but the preserved proof of a “more Jewish” time on a changing (and less white) Lower East Side. Of course, some Jews – Haredim, South Africans, and an older generation – had never stopped eating herring in the first place – or doing any of the other things a generation curious as to what it considered “authentically Jewish” (read: “Ashkenazi”).

Finally, the large-scale migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Canada also changed the perceptions and memories of herring. Herring – selyodka – had remained on the menu in the USSR, and Russian-speaking Jews brought their pickled herrings with them as they moved to New York, Toronto, Montréal, and Chicago. So now, there is also a whole other Jewish communal memory associated with herring – not the Yiddish yesteryear, but that of a Russian Jewish memory shaped by seven decades of novy byt.

Herring fridge
The herring fridge at a Russian supermarket in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York. I got … excited. (Photo mine, May 2015)

I wondered as a child why most of my other friends were not fond of herring. To a certain extent, the tart and fishy pickled herring is – was – for many of their palates a very foreign tastes. As I had noted, tastes in North America had shifted as Ashkenazi Jews largely assimilated into whiteness – which themselves were changing in what they ate and how they ate it. As Bee Wilson in First Bite and Donna Gabaccia in We Are What We Eat have written, flavor preferences in North America and Europe, led by the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, have largely centered around a trifecta of sweet, fatty, and salty flavors in the past fifty years. These tastes – along with social cues that I discussed in a post about Arab desserts – play heavy roles in everything from the flavors of a child’s first foods – formula, baby food, and “kid food” like chicken nuggets and children’s cereal – to the hip foods their parents may eat in wealthy neighborhoods. It is into this context, as Avery Robinson has noted in his work on kugel and “Jewish American foodways,” that North American Jews, their tastes, and their idea of “good Jewish food” have been assimilated. So the tart-sour, fishy-briny taste of pickled herring would be well outside this flavor profile. Perhaps – though South African Jews are very assimilated themselves in terms of food – it is my South African parents that introduced me to herring. Perhaps I was just an unusual child. The most likely thing is that I was simply introduced very early. Now, as more of my friends come to like pickled herring, the dish is used to recall not a simpler time, but rather one of different tastes.

Herring on an English muffin
Herring on an English muffin. (Photo mine, June 2016)

But herring, as you may realize, is also mobilized as a mark of authenticity and continuation – in a manner I’d rather eschew. I’ve seen a few Jews discuss how they are sad “no one eats herring anymore” or claim that they are doing Judaism properly or more authentically by eating herring. This idea, of realness, is rooted in a nostalgia that the theorist Svetlana Boym noted has a habit of “colonizing the present.” This authenticity, rooted in nostalgia, does exactly that – more so than anything truly reflective of the material past. Yes, herring is traditional in Ashkenazi communities. Yes, herring has great symbolism in our culture. But eating herring doesn’t make you any more Jewish than the person who doesn’t eat it, nor is it more right than say, only eating your fish “on sushi or a bagel.” Eat herring because you enjoy it, because you want it, and share it with your friends as something to enjoy and want, not to perform your superior authenticity to address your own insecurity at something we Jews all feel bad at doing: being Jewish. Besides, let’s not forget that for generations those “authentic” ancestors you seek to ape, those “real” Jews, were often quite keen to swap herring for canned tuna and rye bread for Wonder Bread. Or that the herring they preferred may well have been sourer and fishier than the one you do. (We are also affected by changing tastes.) What you remember when you eat herring – like what I remember – is always a “colonization of the present.”

How do we remember our humble little fish? For some, it is the food that fueled Ashkenazi Jews in the past in di alter heim – “the old country,” and a reminder of a lost taste palate or an authentic culture. For others, as it might be for me, a taste of childhood in New York or Moscow. And for others a reminder of our complex statuses as Ashkenazi Jews in North America – assimilated and not. It can be all of these or none of these. And what is forgotten when we remember is just as important – whether it is the crushing poverty that most Jews in Eastern Europe faced, the headlong rush into white Americanness the “authentic” Yiddish-speaking generation of grandparents encouraged and initiated (including the change of tastes!), the class dynamics of eating the “authentic” version an often pricy pickled delicacy, or the simple fact that in a sweet-fatty world, the tart-fishy pickled herring has a different place.

And as we remember herring, we keep eating it. At least I do.

1152409615_d1fd859a3f_z
A school of herring. (Photo Arild Finne Nyboe via Creative Commons)
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4 thoughts on “The Barrel Always Smells of Herring I: How Do You Remember A Fish?

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