The Dicey Future of Jarred Gefilte Fish
As they float new artisanal recipes, some foodies don’t mince words about the beige dumplings Manischewitz has sold since the 1940s.
by Lucette Lagnado, Wall Street Journal
September 23, 2017
A collection of Manischewitz products at the
company headquarters in New Jersey.
PHOTO: AMY STERN
NEWARK, N.J.— Can this jar of gefilte fish be saved?
A staple of Jewish cuisine, gefilte fish—Yiddish for stuffed fish—has been a fixture for Manischewitz Co., which started selling jars of the beige dumplings of minced carp, pike and whitefish in the late 1940s. Families still snap up the jars for holiday dinners, such as Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins Wednesday evening.
Traditional jar fans haven’t gone away by any means, but times and tastes have changed. In an artisanal food world, Manischewitz is struggling to make its shelf-stable product hook a new, more-finicky generation of eaters.
Among its more popular innovations are gluten-free gefilte fish and a “Premium Gold” version. A new secret variation is yet to come.
The emphatic response from Jewish foodies? Don’t bother.
“I ate gefilte fish from the jar as a child,” says Chanie Apfelbaum, a gourmet cook and kosher blogger from Brooklyn. “I still have nightmares.”
Chanie Apfelbaum, a kosher blogger, with her panko-crusted gefilte fish.
PHOTO: CHAYA BIALESTOCK
Ms. Apfelbaum says traditional Jewish foods are making a comeback—but the nostalgia doesn’t extend to gefilte fish with a four-year pantry life. She says people have “moved on.”
These days, she buys frozen gefilte fish, which she fashions into small cakes then fries with a crust of panko.
Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov has offered gefilte fish escabeche with fiddleheads and artichokes as a Passover special. A Brooklyn company, the Gefilteria, makes “artisanal gefilte fish” from scratch. Susie Fishbein, author of books on elegant kosher cooking, has a recipe for “tri-color gefilte fish” with dill.
“What can you do with a jar of Manischewitz?” Ms. Fishbein says. “I am sorry, but there is nothing to do—no magic spice, no magic touch.”
She confesses a fondness for the company and once did a TV segment for Manischewitz’s brisket spices. But she isn’t touting its gefilte fish. “If I put a jar of it on my table, no one will even think to open it,” she says. Her guests would assume it was vintage table decoration.
Tri-color gefilte fish from the cookbook ‘Kosher by Design’ by Susie Fishbein.
PHOTO: JOHN UHER/ARTSCROLL PUBLICATIONS
At the end of the 20th century, Manischewitz was selling 1.5 million jars of gefilte fish, but in recent years, sales have fallen by about 2% a year, the company says.
Rabbi Aron Yonah Hayum, who oversees production at Manischewitz, is trying to help revive gefilte fish’s appeal. “To keep the category alive,” he deadpans, “we have to bring it to the 1990s, at least.”
The kosher-food company, founded in 1888, has tried to freshen up its fish before and Rabbi Hayum, a 23-year Manischewitz veteran, can rattle off every experiment. In the late 1980s, Manischewitz unveiled a salmon gefilte fish. “They thought that it would generate buzz,” he says.
Unfortunately, the industrial cooking process washed out the natural pink color, he says, and turned the fish an unappetizing shade of gray.
Manischewitz tried jalapeño gefilte fish in the early 1990s, hoping customers were ready for a zesty flavor. “Not so much,” says the rabbi.
Next up was “Mediterranean” gefilte fish, made with rosemary and oregano. While he liked it, the product had a weird look, Rabbi Hayum says. “We put real spices and you could see little green dots and stems,” floating through the jar. “Too wacko.”
Rabbi Hayum is an avid collector of company memorabilia. Items line his office and grace glass cases in the company’s halls—from a canvas “Borscht belt” with names of old Catskill hotels, to a Roberta Flack record album, signed “To Manischewitz with Love.” There is also a jar containing a “loaf” of gefilte fish the company once tried to market. It was a no-go.
European Jewish immigrants brought the specialty with them to America. Making it from scratch meant securing live fish—which homemakers parked in the bathtub—that had to be killed, deboned, minced and seasoned.
“Gefilte fish took a whole day to make, and Jewish women had carefully made it in Europe,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
When Manischewitz began mass-producing its gefilte fish, it was embraced by homemakers seeking relief from the arduous preparation.
The jar, says Prof. Sarna, was “a metaphor for America itself—Jewish women no longer had to slave all day long.”
Now consumers have gravitated from the jar to frozen gefilte fish, which yields a cream-colored loaf.
The frozen version lets cooks be creative, Prof. Sarna says. “You might patschke [fuss] with it a little bit. The frozen gefilte fish allowed you to add some of your own carrots, some of your own spices, and it didn’t take very long.”
A gefilte fish recipe by Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-owners of
The Gefilteria and co-authors of 'The Gefilte Manifesto’
PHOTO: LAUREN VOLO
The Gefilteria’s co-owners Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz suggest a return to pre-jar days. It is far less labor-intensive to make gefilte fish now, Ms. Alpern says, with one of their recipes taking 1½ hours at most. And, she adds, no need to store fish in a bathtub. Buy fish filets and use a food processor.
Some of Manischewitz’s innovations have worked. Rabbi Hayum says the gluten-free gefilte fish, which uses potato starch instead of matzo meal, is popular, as is the Premium Gold variety, which uses less carp and more whitefish. He says Manischewitz is hoping to try its new secret variation in the spring.
The company says it sells 1.2 million jars annually, retailing from $6.26 to $8.99 for the 24-ounce jar.
Rabbi Hayum knows keeping the jar alive is an uphill battle. But he believes it is important. For many American Jews, he says, the jar of gefilte fish on the supermarket shelf “is their last connection to Judaism.”
Manischewitz, now part of Bain Capital Credit after churning through several owners, recently laid off workers and said it would manufacture products, including gefilte fish, in other facilities. David Sugarman, CEO, said Manischewitz was taking “necessary steps to preserve and position the business” to grow “over the next 129 years.”
Karen Blum, of Westlake Village, Calif., answered an online Facebook survey by Manischewitz on gefilte fish. She recalled how after she had her tonsils removed as a 4-year-old, she refused any nourishment, even ice cream and Jell-O. Instead, she says, “I pointed to the jar of gefilte fish.”
She says she still favors the version from the jar: “It is the ultimate Jewish comfort food,” she says. “It would never enter my mind to eat frozen gefilte fish—hell no!”