For those of us with a habit that pre-dates internet bookmarking: tearing an article from a magazine and stashing it either somewhere random or somewhere sensible — in this case, for me, the latter — my copy of Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.
So I was easily able to find “The Ones that Got Away: A Field Guide to Rare and Extinct Varieties of Jewish Fish” when, a few weeks ago, I read a poem that recalled the writer’s immigrant Jewish grandfather and “the fish that we called “yum yum fish”/ (What WAS it?) /A mystery lost to time.”
There’s a sad nostalgia for me, thinking of the times in my life, mostly as a child around the deaths of my mother’s thousand relatives, when the food centrepiece would be a platter piled with fish, colours of salmon-orange-pink, skin-silver-bronze, white and bone-grey with bagels, slabs of cream cheese, wedges of wet tomatoes and thinly sliced onions. These were fatty, smokey, pickle-y delicious flavours, salty, strong, and specific to a time that to me feels past. I can’t imagine my own children enjoying this food, and I can’t imagine a social occasion at which I’d find myself now in which it would be offered– that lot of folk has died.
Remembering the generations of people who ate this way, and the knowledge and experience they held, across cultures, is one of the ways that the Slow Food Ark of Taste enters the discourse about lost and struggling traditions, in an effort to celebrate legacies of culinary diversity, and renew them. I’m also really pleased to see Slow Food entering the important discourse about food and climate change.
Roger Mummert wrote something truly fascinating with “The Ones that Got Away,” way back in 1993; he tied together much that is fun and foodie yet also so much about loss (of people, of foodways, of fish), beneath a humorous interview with the proprietor of a famous New York City fish delicatessen. Together they paint a beguiling and informative picture of old world food traditions within contemporary global markets and ecological overfishing. I’d be curious to know what’s changed and what’s improved (perhaps???) in the twenty-plus years since this piece.
If overfishing has caused the greatest losses to fish diversity, it’s hard to imagine that Climate Change (changing water temperatures, currents, ocean acidification) is not quickly catching up, for fresh water fish as well. (I wrote a little about this in highlighting a film about fishing on the Great Lakes.) I try really hard to buy fish that is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, or from fish mongers, where possible, who really take an interest in the where and how of the fish they sell. (Truth is I don’t eat fish nearly as much as I’d like because I can’t get the information I’d like.)
This has been an important article to me, so I wanted to make it available on the internet via this blog, hoping people with an interest in Jewish food history, in Slow Food traditions, in fisheries management, in delicious fish preparation, could enjoy this piece as I have. “The Ones that Got Away” offers clues to answering various puzzles, including perhaps the identity of Merril’s grandfather’s “yum yum fish.” Thanks to Roger Mummert and to the Yiddish Book Centre for giving me permission to put it up.
The Ones that Got Away: A Field Guide to Rare and Extinct Varieties of Jewish Fish
On a good day there are 40 – 50 different varieties of fish in the display cases of Russ & Daughters, the Lower East Side’s premier purveyor of dried, pickled, smoked and salted fish. But for the true Jewish fish aficionado, some old-time favourites are no longer part of the catch.
BUTTERFISH “Now this is a very Jewish fish that we used to have a big following for,” says Marc Russ Federman, Russ & Daughters’ third-generation owner. “It was a very sweet fish, lovely like a big chub with a wide, round belly!” The butterfish became popular with the Japanese and has been virtually fished out of domestic lakes for lack of management controls.
CHABAK This is a term for smoked shad that was traditionally prepared in a vegetable oil and sold very cheaply. “A real Eastern European shtetl kind of thing,” says Federman. “Once in a great while I get a call for it from people who have been in the wilderness. They’re usually the same people who come in and ask, “Where’s your grandfather?” I tell them he’s been dead for 30 years.”
KAPCHUNKAS The sign is still on the wall, but Russ & Daughters has discontinued this Russian-style preparation of a whitefish that’s dried (not smoked) with the guts still in it. “I’ve never actually tasted it,” says Federman, “but I can tell you this is a really smelly fish.” Federman characterises kapchunkas as a kind of “white-fish jerky,” and says they were once very popular with prosperous, former Lower East Siders who would send their limousine drivers down to pick them up and then hang them in their garages rather than take them into their homes. “They wouldn’t be caught dead buying them themselves,” he adds. Being “caught dead” is, in fact, a serious problem with kapchunkas: not unlike the Japanese delicacy fugu – the blowfish that is lethal if not meticulously eviscerated – improperly handled kapchunkas can also be deadly. Some guy in Brighton Beach sold some bad kapchunkas and killed two people,” Federman says with a grimace. If customers ask, he tells them to ask around Brighton Beach, but warns them to be careful. “Anything goes out in Brighton,” he says. “It’s the wild west out there.”
MILTZ Gone too from the counter at Russ & Daughters is miltz, the sperm of the male herring that once was considered a real prize by herring mavens. Federman explains that the sperm, which is pareve, was used to make a non-dairy cream sauce for herring. “That was the original herring in cream sauce in the old days, ” he says. He pulls aside the hind quarters of some soaking herring to display some miltz, then adds, “Some people ask for herring with miltz because they think it’s better, and we fish around the barrels to find some for them.”
NEW YORK LAKE STURGEON Some years ago, New York State put lake sturgeon on the endangered species list. Russ & Daughters now gets its lake sturgeon from northern Canada – not New York. A fatty, unctuous fish, many consider lake sturgeon the “creme de la creme” of smoked fish. Because sturgeon are bottom feeders, the taste is affected by environment: the best come from Canadian lakes, which are pure, cold and deep.
RUSSIAN WHITE LOX Also called bellaribbitzer, this was a sea trout that was salt-cured (not smoked) and sliced like smoked salmon. “This was a very fat fish,” Federman recalls. “It oozed fat.” It was whitish in color and was priced a little cheaper than salmon. Though Federman still gets requests for it, he can’t find it anymore.
SMOKED CARP This freshwater fish was smoked, then cured in a pastrami style with paprika, pepper and garlic. “We used to call this knobl (garlic) carp, but nobody makes it anymore,” says Federman. “Most of the population that ate it is gone…maybe as a result of the fish.”