In the Suburbs / Loving a three-generation Passover legacy
About a year before my mother passed away at 90 in 2012, my wife Mari-ann told mom that she’d like to come back to Chicago and learn how to make the delicious Gefilte Fish that so often was part of our Passover (Pesach) seders. My Nana Kate, my mom and my Aunt Charlene began the fishy ritual when we lived in our original house in Chicago and it continued until Nana turned 85 and had to stop because of failing health.
Mom was thrilled to have Mare come in from our home in Fairfield, and we made a weekend out of the fish-making lesson. Mom, the gentle taskmaster and, most importantly, the chief taster, arrived at my aunt’s house early, started barking preparation orders and soon the process was underway. I remained in the background while mom, my Aunt Charlene, mom’s sister; and Mare rolled up their sleeves and turned the ground-up mix of about three or four fishes — pike, buffalo, trout, pickerel or others into about 75 pieces of Gefilte Fish.
During that first training session, while Mare and my mom created the the pieces, my aunt prepared several deep pots filled with a broth of onion skins, carrots and fish bones. Then the fish team carefully placed the fish pieces in the broth and the fish cooked until a familiar, albeit overwhelming, scent of Gefilte Fish permeated the house and probably the neighborhood in Skokie, just like it did when I was a little boy in Chicago arriving home from school.
We happily took about 26 pieces of the finished Gefilte Fish home to Fairfield for our seder that year. And the oohs and ahhs from our guests said it all — Mare had learned her fish-making lesson well.
The year after Mom passed away and my Aunt Charlene mentioned that she was going to continue making the fish as long as she could, Mare asked to help again and we returned to Chicago from Fairfield. This time my aunt, Mare and my niece Lauren once again created the delicious fish. Of course, we all felt the void that my mom, the gentle taskmaster and taster, had left but somehow we knew she was there in spirit, barking the orders and offering feedback.
Since my aunt will be 90 this year, we wondered whether she would want to make the fish, so we called in February to ask. She said she had been thinking about it and our sister-in-law Chris would be helping too. We were delighted when she called in early March to say the fish making would be on Wednesday, April 17, so we planned another auto jaunt to the Midwest. Aunt Charlene said we could stay with her. Since that week was our spring break from school the trip worked out perfectly.
We told her that this year’s fish would be the most special part our Seder in our new home for this coming Saturday. The plan was for us to bring home about 25 or 30 pieces of fish.
My aunt, who looks amazing for her nearly 90 years, greeted us warmly when we arrived Monday evening. While her energy level is more like someone of 60 than 90, she did ask on Tuesday morning if I could schlep in the 14 pounds of ground fish from her car.
In casual conversation the day before the fish-making experience, we learned that Aunt Charlene never makes the fish the same way from year to year. She shared that my Nana Kate never cooked with a recipe and somehow the fish was always delicious and the family always raved.
But my aunt likes a little “Gefilte variety” and keeps a box with all the treasured recipes from 35 or so different years. Unlike Nana, she and my mom never made the fish the same way or without a recipe. And there were always comments on the recipe cards about the taste testing that was done.
The morning of the 17th, before I left to meet our friend Alan for breakfast, I came into the kitchen, which looked like a well organized Gefilte Fish laboratory of mixing pieces and recipe cards. It was some amazing experiment waiting to happen.
I was the designated delivery guy for the lunch, and by the time I returned from my breakfast with food, the heavenly aroma of cooking fish in the bubbling pots signified that the crew had done a great job of preparing this year’s fishy treasure. Everyone was tasting and commenting and in the end, the verdict was that 2019’s Gefilte Fish was going to be a hit around the seder tables. I could almost see my mom’s and my Nana’s smiles of approval.
As the fish cooked, I reflected on the more than 30-plus seders we hosted in our various homes in Fairfield. Mom and dad often joined us, always bringing the Gefilte fish, which made those annual events that much more special.
In later years, when travel became a little more difficult for my folks and health issues intervened for Mom, she and Charlene continued to make the fish and dad shipped it to us, initially sending it by plane before 9/11 happened, another year shipping it by bus and finally sending it via Fed-Ex, carefully packed in dry ice. We lovingly referred to our traveling fish as “Gefilte, the Pesach adventurer.”
On Thursday, the 18th, as we packed the car for our journey home and gave my aunt a big hug of gratitude, we hoped that my aunt would continue this 3-generation legacy of making Gefilte Fish for many years to come. We just pray that she has the same energy at 100.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.