Forshmak (Chopped Herring)
“La caque sent toujours le hareng.”
“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.
So I have a thing for old cookbooks. Take me to a used bookshop and the first things I look for are old cookbooks. And maps, but that’s another story for another time. The biggest Jewish cultural event for me this fall was neither Matisyahu’s frumspringa nor Netanyahu’s Hitler gaffe, but rather the release of Eve Jochnowitz’s brilliant translation of a 1938 vegetarian, Yiddish cookbook by Fania Lewando. One of my most treasured family heirlooms is my maternal grandmother’s neatly-typed cookbook of her pantheon of recipes, and I’ve lovingly leafed through my other grandmother’s stack of aging, 1950’s “Jewish” cookbooks.
So, understandably, I was excited to find one day during my lunch break at work a fully digitized kosher cookbook from 1874! An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles, by Estrella Atrutel, is not only free for your perusal online, but also a stunning time capsule into what might have been laid on the table for a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family in Victorian England. It is not only filled with detailed recipes that would have required lengthy, mostly female, and probably employed labor to make, but also has lines such as “send to the table” and requirements for all manner of fancy cooking implements. (That said, so do today’s cookbooks. Who among ye has a strawberry huller?)
Browsing through the cookbook, one who is familiar with the mostly Ashkenazi, heavily kitschified notion of “Jewish food” would be surprised. One sees nary a recipe for lokshen kugel and the German kleis rather than kneidlach. P’tcha appears, but as an aspic, and carp meets its fate soused rather than as gefilte fish. Instead, one sees renditions of French and British cuisine, much like the rest of wealthy Europe at this time: you have “Butter Cressy Soup” and sole à la Normande and charlottes, and of course the more unusual Brains Omelets (exactly what it sounds like) and Mock Turtle Soup. While there are the “Jewish” things here and there –fried fish and my beloved quince jam, both brought to England by Sephardic immigrants, have cameo appearances – it seems to a casual reader that Anglo-Jewry was trying to cook in a most “European” fashion. Which was totally true.
Let us not forget that upper-crust Anglo-Jewry wanted to be, well, English upper-class. In a day and age where knowing what is “authentic” acts as a marker of upper-class status, and the performance of “true” ethnic identity is celebrated and guarded, it is difficult to recall that for much of Jewish history – and even, especially in the State of Israel – “authenticity” was definitely neither sought nor celebrated. Today, people send their children to prohibitively expensive day schools and serve “long lost” Jewish dishes at their Shabbat tables. But in the 1870’s, a well-off Jewish family sought instead to reflect the English upper-class culture they sought to enter: schooling in the Western tradition, dishes more or less close to haute cuisine française, and certainly not speaking such “dialects” as Ladino or Yiddish. Men wore top hats, women the fashion of the day. And, as I have amply noted, this extended to the dinner table: because part of being like the upper crust was eating like (and sometimes, just eating) the upper crust.
So dishes like a baked apple pudding meant more than simply something delicious: it was part and parcel of a nexus of class and ethnicity that was performed. Of course, baked apple dishes have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. Apple cake has been a traditional Rosh Hashanah dish for centuries, as have been baked apples in some communities. (Both became even more popular in the United States.) So an apple pudding was not “out of tradition.” But it also was part of cooking and eating as similarly to the then – and still – very anti-Semitic English upper class as possible. You could be rich and white and British, but kosher and Jewish and “traditional” all at the same time. Many tried this: not just in England, but in America, in South Africa, in France, and elsewhere. This sort of recipe is as reflective of Jewish history as are the “authentic” apple cakes and taiglach – which, as I continue to note on this blog, were also once considered to be newfangled and foreign.
Two friends and I decided to try the recipe out ourselves one day. We converted the weight measurements to cups and teaspoons, acquired the ingredients, guessed the oven temperature, and set about our task. We did elect to swap out the suet – beef fat – for butter, especially since kosher suet is rather pricy. By and large, the recipe worked in terms of taste – we got an apple pudding that was certainly nice to eat. But the recipe was also…well, weird. We realized we had too much apple filling for not enough dough – we got one and two-thirds layers of dough, rather than the promised four. Not to mention that the apple filling, though good, was…lemony. Very, very lemony. Very, very, very lemony. Some of it, perhaps, may have been taste. Yet I think there was another fact at work.
This is the hazard of converting the cryptic and sometimes jarring guesswork of the past. What counts as a “good size” apple in 1874 is different from one today, and the instruments of cooking change. What, for example, is a “pudding basin?” But more importantly, it also demonstrates how cooking by “eye” can be so temporally and geographically inflected. I pride myself on cooking by “eye” and “knowing” when things are done. So did Estella Atrutel – all of her recipes assume a basic knowledge of cooking and food. Yet it is when we communicate these ideas to others that something can get lost across time, across space, across assumptions. I mean, the English upper-class might have actively prized rather than enjoyed lemony, lemony, lemony apples. On the other hand, I wonder if Mrs. Atrutel could cook a shakshouka or Jerusalem kugel from my directions.
I made the recipe again, with a few adjustments. In order to counteract the overwhelming flavor of lemon, I reduced the lemon peel to a fraction of the original recipe. Meanwhile, I expanded the dough to reflect the fact that our apples today are far larger than those in Atrutel’s, and to have the same alternation that she did. I also added a touch of salt to the dough – it adds a tang that pairs nicely with the sweet, lemony apples. Finally, this recipe is dairy, whereas Atrutel’s original was made with suet and was thus “meat.” Bake and enjoy!
Baked Apple Pudding
Based on a recipe by Estella Atrutel printed in 1874 in An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles
Adjusted to an American kitchen in the 2010s.
2 cups white, sifted flour
8 oz (one stick) butter, softened
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp granulated sugar
3 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, cored and diced (you can also peel them)
¼ cup raisins
Zest of one lemon
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
Butter, to grease the pan
Brown sugar and ground cinnamon, for the bottom of the pan
Optional: ¼ cup slivered almonds
- Put the apples, raisins, spices, and lemon zest in a pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook until the apples are soft and the water has significantly reduced, stirring occasionally.
- While the apples cook, make the dough. Chop the butter into small pieces. Then, in a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, salt, and sugar with a pastry blender or fingertips until you have clumps of dough. Add about ¼-½ cup of water to the dough, and mix to form a clump of smooth, slightly sticky dough. Roll out the dough on a cutting board until about ½ an inch thick. Cut in half.
- Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease a small baking pan – 8×8 works fine. Cover the bottom with a light coat of brown sugar and cinnamon.
- Let the apple mixture cool a bit after cooking. Meanwhile, take half the dough and cover the bottom of the pan with it.
- Now, spoon the apple mixture – draining out remaining water – over the dough. Cover the apple mixture with the other half of the dough.
- Bake for twenty minutes, or until the dough has browned nicely. Serve with ice cream or custard. The bottom should be caramelized!