On Herring Literature: The Barrel Always Smells of Herring III

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

Read about the history and memory of herring here and here. Get a recipe for chopped herring here and for herring marinated in beer here.

In my brief and wonderful adventures researching the history of Jewish and global herring, I’ve had the bizarre experience of reading through a tiny library of books and articles about herring, the people who make it, those who sell it, and those who eat it. Given that herring created and sewed together a world in early-modern Northern Europe and the early 20th century, it is perhaps not surprising that a “herring literature“ – only a tiny fraction of which I have cited on this blog – has grown up to document this fish. But why, one may ask, would one write a book about herring?

Of course I cannot make predictions as to this drive to write a book about herring – better, then, to point at three common trends. One is nostalgia: books like Herring: A Love Story, Russ and Daughters, and Rhapsody in Schmaltz, all of which touch on herring if not obsess over it, take us down a route of exploring the various roles herring played in those days of yore. Yore might be the Lower East Side in 1928, yore might be Germany in 1548. None of these books, however, are uncritical. A second is scientific: herring is a big part of the history of Norway and Iceland, and one can’t really understand Iceland’s industrialization without knowing its herring industry – one that fed many a Jewish stomach. Articles like LC Hamilton’s discussion of the herring economy of Siglufjörður provides an essential snapshot into what was, at one point, a backbone of several countries’ economies. And some books seem to just be a product of lifelong obsession – like that by Donald Murray, Herring Tales. As a fellow herring fanatic, I understand the urge to write about one’s love. All of these slices of herring literature provide us yet another insight into the wonders of this fish and the people who eat it.

More broadly, these herring books allow those of us interested in Jewish food history to examine how Jewish dietary practice intersected with non-Jewish lives and economies well beyond the intensely researched, discussed, and romanticized rhetoric of separation and difference – which were important, very much so, but not the complete story. Yes, we kept kosher. Yes, we died for our right to do so. But we also did so as we bought fish from Norway in barrels sold by Dutchmen shared by our Gentile neighbors. That’s actually incredible – and these books and articles, from Donald Murray’s to Cathie Fidler’s – illustrate that reality. And through that demonstration, herring literature gives us the proof of a simple fact: herring is our cosmopolitanism and our influences, wrapped up into one delicious and delightful little fish.

And now, a few recommended herring reads and articles, to finish off our series. I’ve literally read, skimmed, or browsed all or part of dozens of articles and books on herring, and this is a selection of some of the best.

Coffee table book: Herring, A Love Story, by Daniel Rozensztroch and Cathie Fidler, profiled on this blog in April – it’s quite Jewish-centric but embraces all of Northern Europe.

History: Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, by Donald Murray – a Scotland-centric history of the social structures surrounding herring. It’s a bit meandering but a great book!

Memoir: Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built, by Mark Russ Federman – a wonderful and funny book by the now-retired third generation of Ashkenazi Jewish New York’s herring castle, Russ and Daughters

Dining: This 2002 article by the late, great RW Apple in the New York Times is a wonderful plunge into the tasty and laborious world of Swedish herring: “Herring, the Fish That Roared.”



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