Shana tova u-metuqah! Happy New Year! As an advance notice, I am going to be posting a little bit less in the start of 5779. I am applying for urban planning school, and need to focus on applications. That said, you should still see some updates from me! And I could not let the holiday season go by without at least one post.
So as some of you know, fish heads are traditional in many Jewish communities for Rosh Hashanah. Like so many other Jewish food traditions, it is a pun. Rosh Hashanah is the “head of the year,” and the fish head symbolizes that we are at the start of the year. Fish are also traditionally a sign of parnasa, prosperity, in many Jewish legends. So the fish head symbolizes that we should be at the head of our luck and prosperity in the year. That is the simple explanation. In a historical context, we probably picked up this tradition from pagan and Christian neighbors in Europe and the Middle East in the early, pre-Islamic Middle Ages. Many food traditions then (and now) were iconographic: people ate in a way that imitated what was commemorated. Another culture probably had a fish head tradition, and we adoped it.
Fish heads also happen to be year-round food for some Jews. Including me, and my grandmother. No, we are not from communities where fish heads are celebrated fare, such as the Kerala Jewish communities or some Turkish communities. My grandmother is a South African Jew who grew up in the Afrikaans-speaking countryside outside of Cape Town, where fish was plentiful and part of everyday life. In Afrikaans, the word for fish head is viskop. Viskoppe are at once a very rustic food – associated with fishermen and down-home meals in fishing towns – but also refined, and elegant, and symbolic of the Cape. Jews happily adopted eating fish heads, in all sorts of ways – like anything South African, there is no one recipe for it. My family is among them.
My grandmother is 91, and still insists on making fish heads whenever I visit. I tell her she does not have to, but it will happen anyway. (After all, she is also making them for herself.) My grandmother is a happy user of industrial foods, and has recently embraced sweet chili sauce as her preferred seasoning for her fish heads. It is delicious. It is perhaps not authentic, but it would not be out of place in South Africa, where the so-very-irritating fetish for authenticity is thankfully not indulged. I have also had fish heads made by her over the years with a variety of seasonings. Find what works for you. But take my grandmother’s advice: get a fresh fish head, preferably salmon, from the fishmonger. Do not use any old fish head, and make sure that it is very fresh. And enjoy it!
My Grandmother’s Fish Heads
All measures are to taste.
Take a big fish head, preferably salmon. Have the fishmonger cut it in half for you.
Wash the fish heads, and trim off any excess gunk.
Oil a baking tray and lay the fish heads on top.
Chop some cherry tomatoes and lay them around and on top of the fish.
Pour over the fish some sweet chili sauce and some vegetable oil. Make sure the fish is coated! (I also add some salt.) If you want to do it without sweet chili sauce, I would add some red pepper flakes and honey, and perhaps some vinegar over the fish.
Bake in a hot oven (~400F/200C) or a hot toaster oven for about 20-25 minutes, or until the fish is cooked.
Normally, I don’t tend to fall into cookbook or food book hype. Yes, I tell you about “Great Books” but that is because a lot of Jewish food books simply don’t live up to the hype promised to us by marketers, the media, and the priests and priestesses of the Cult of Authenticity. (Authenticity in cooking is bullshit.) So I was a bit nervous when I picked up a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, promising that Ashkenazi cuisine was “one of the world’s great cuisines…right under our noses.” Another well-publicized book, a historical one, on Ashkenazi cooking earlier this year did not live up to hype. The authors, essentially professional Ashkenazi chefs, were proclaimed to be revitalizing Eastern European Jewish cuisine itself. That is quite a lot of hype.
Thus I was more than pleasantly surprised when I opened the book to find a true gem. This is a cookbook that celebrates the wonders and underrated glory of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: some of the classic dishes, but some of them with a new twist. The crisp, delightful flavors of Eastern Europe are rendered lovingly, but not cloyingly. As someone who grew up with these tastes, this book is delightful. It must be even more so for those who were not as exposed to traditional Ashkenazi cooking. And the hype, if hyperbolic, was appropriate for the book. You should all buy a copy of The Gefilte Manifesto as soon as you are able.
Gefilte fish pre-khrayn…
…and post-khrayn. (Not the same ball) Photos mine, April 2016.
I will briefly state what the book is not before I go through all the things that it is. It is not a book on authenticity, it is not a book of manufactured memories, and it is not a book that makes demands of certain dishes for the reader’s Jewishness. Rather, it approaches Ashkenazi cuisine as a tradition embodied in methodology and memory, and for that alone it is valuable. As it happens, Yoskowitz and Alpern are excellent arbiters of memory and new taste. Recipes are preceded by and placed in the context of recollection – be they historical, personal, or somewhere in between. But the food that is remembered is not taken as a given – and homage is given to how memory in fact influences the way we eat.
The book is incredibly well-written, and practical too. Within the book’s contents, you have guides to dressing poultry, making kreplach, and braiding challah – and not to mention all types of pickling. Thus readers are taught at a variety of levels how to make all of the book’s tasty treats – and in language that is neither cloyingly saccharine nor sentimental.
And the recipes themselves? They are wonderful! Some of them are what are popularly called classics: matzah ball soup, savory blintzes, and the namesake gefilte fish. Others are inspired by the Ashkenazi tradition but are certainly welcome departures from the “canonical” dishes: Polish sour rye soup, kimchi-stuffed cabbage, or a gluten-free buckwheat bread. My current favorite new recipe is for a spiced blueberry soup, which promises all the tart-sweetness of yagdes and the creamy indulgence of dessert for dinner. In addition, many of the “basics” are covered – such as pickled cucumbers, farmer’s cheese, and bread. All are well-presented, and all have an eye not to the idol of authenticity in the past, but that Ashkenazi food is still in evolution.
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.
Read the herring series hereand here,and learn how to make chopped herring here.
An unusual and short recipe today – in the course of my research, I learned that herring is, in parts of Germany and Denmark, marinated in beer (link in Danish). This type of recipe yields a dark and yeasty – yet not too fishy – herring, and variants have since spread – even canned – to France, the United Kingdom, and North America. It’s unusual, but it works pretty well – and I have to say my variant, based on a French-language recipe, turned out quite delicious! The saltiness and fishiness of the herring is cut well by the beer, which blends well with the dill and bay leaves to add a wonderfully savory taste.
In recent years, beer has become quite popular as an oneg Shabbat (Sabbath treat) in many American and Canadian Jewish communities – and, not to mention, that Ashkenazi Jews have a long and ancient tradition of brewing and drinking beer. This recipe combines this pleasure with the classic oneg Shabbat of pickled herring.
Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.
I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones. What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?
Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.
After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.
Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia. More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast, and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.
Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.
Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.
And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.
In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.
Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.
Here’s a recipe for a classic Ashkenazi forshpeizer – chopped herring. More of a herring mash, hash, or puree than simply chopped, this salad-shmear is both a fishy delight and a potent tradition at the tables of Eastern European Jewry around the world. Originally invented in medieval Germany as a hot dish with fried herring, the delicacy migrated east and became cooler by the 18th century, where it became common among Ashkenazi Jews – and so common that its name comes from the word for “appetizer” in German (Vorschmack). Today, regional variants are served around the world – from the tart one of Lithuania to the biscuit-laden one of South Africa. The dish has also become popular among non-Jews in Russia and Finland, where it is traditional to add ground meat. (This combination would be forbidden under most interpretations of Jewish law.)
Growing up, chopped herring was consistently one of my mother’s favorite things – and like many, she would usually buy a store-made version for any reason you could think of. We would eat the forshmak on sourdough bread or rye with gusto. Admittedly, there are many good ones out there, and they do save you the trouble of having your entire apartment smell like fish (and a good deal of money, too). However, chopped herring is quite easy to make, and it’s a lot of fun as well. Traditionally, bread is used, but I added matzah instead to make a Passover-friendly forshmak. The flavoring is a sweet-tart one, blending both the sweeter Polish and tarter Lithuanian versions; this combination is popular in parts of the former Soviet Union.Enjoy!
2 small Jonathan apples (or another tart apple), peeled and cored
1 piece matzah, soaked in water
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled
1 tbsp white or rice wine vinegar
1 tsp white sugar
Scallions and/or fresh dill, for garnish (optional)
1. Before mixing your ingredients: if you are using brined herring fillets, you should chop them and then rinse them for 30 seconds under running water. This removes unnecessary saltiness. If you are using pickled herring fillets, just remove them from the vinegar. Squeeze the water from the matzah until you only have the softened matzah.
2. In a food processor, blend the herring, apples, eggs, and matzah. You may have chunks of apple in the final product.
3. Add the vinegar and sugar and blend again.
4. Garnish with scallions or fresh dill. Keep refrigerated for up to a week.
“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.