Lifestyle & Culture

A Fishy Tale

March 22, 2021

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A version of the post below was originally published in The Washington Post, April 1, 1996.

By Janet Kelly

Passover has always been my favorite holiday. For one thing, you don’t have to go to synagogue because the seder dinner itself is full of prayers and hymns. The meal tells a story; it’s the same one every year, but it has a happy ending. Finally, if you pay attention, you may learn a lesson or two. You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about the food. To some, matzoh is like eating cardboard. And gefilte fish, well, that reminds me of a Passover many years ago when my grandmother, famous for matzoh ball soup, tzimmes (carrots, sweet potatoes, prunes, apricots, and spices) and her sublime chopped liver, was unable to make the dish, and the task fell to my mother and aunt.

Here’s how I remember the day:

It started with a phone call from my aunt to my mother, which I answered and then stayed on the line a few seconds to listen in. “Meet me at the fish store on Middle Neck Road; they open at 9,” said my mother. “We’ll buy the carp [an oily freshwater fish native to Europe and Asia] and whatever other ingredients we’ll need.” “I’ll bring Mom’s recipe,” said my aunt.

After what seemed like a long time later, my mother and aunt arrived, laden with shopping bags full of boxes of Manischewitz matzoh, bottles of red Passover wine, Welch’s red grape juice, red and white horseradish; fragrant, dark, rich honey cakes, lemon-yellow sponge cake and dainty almond macaroons fresh from our favorite bakery; and a huge white oily wrapper with the fish.

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They had to keep the carp cold while they made the marinade for the brisket, but the fish was so large there wasn’t enough room for it in the refrigerator. My mother suggested the unthinkable: “We could keep it upstairs in the kids’ bathtub and cover it with ice until we’re ready to work on it.”

“I never saw Grandma do that,” I piped up, “and her refrigerator is much, much smaller than ours.”

“We’re just going to leave it in there for a short time,” said my mother as she and my aunt proceeded to carry the fish and buckets of ice upstairs to my bathroom. I stationed myself at the top of the steps and watched while they put that big slimy fish with black eyes in my pretty pink bathtub. “I’m never going to take a bath in that tub again. You can’t make me!” Nobody was paying any attention to me. Then my aunt casually said, “I wonder what we’re supposed to do with the eyes. I don’t remember what the recipe said.”

“I thought you said you knew how to make this, that you had watched Mom so often that you were sure you could do it yourself.”

“I am sure,” said Aunt G., “but I just don’t remember what she said to do with the head. I think you’re supposed to chop it off and use it for the broth that you cook the fish in. You know how Mom’s recipes aren’t always that exact.”

“I left the recipe at home,” apologized my aunt. “I’m sorry but l was so rushed getting ready.”

I held my breath. Then, my mother began to laugh, and my aunt did, too—uncontrollably. Soon, they were laughing so hard neither one of them could speak.

When my grandmother arrived, I gave her a big hug and immediately began to report on the afternoon, “Mom and Aunt G. lost your recipe; they couldn’t figure out what to do with the eyes, they put the fish in my tub, and . . . ” My mother ordered me upstairs to dress.

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As soon as I finished, I raced downstairs into the kitchen. The fragrant smell of meat and onions was coming from the oven. The matzoh ball soup was heating on top of the stove; there were little bowls of the charoses (chopped apple, walnuts, currants, and sweet wine), sitting on the kitchen table, and then I saw them: plates of gefilte fish garnished with carrots and that clear wiggly Jell-O-like sauce. I went over to the table and tried to sneak a little piece to see for myself how it tasted, but my grandmother caught me before I could and gave me silver dishes of nuts and raisins to set out in the living room.

It was kind of a special year for me—it would be my responsibility to recite the four questions in Hebrew (actually it was no big deal; you just had to ask why was this night different from all other nights with a couple of little modifications). My dad and I had practiced, so l was prepared.

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When all the prayers were over, my mom and aunt brought in the first course, the gefilte fish.

I cut off a very little piece. It was not as good as my grandmother’s. I watched for reactions from everyone else at the table, but no one said a word.

After dinner we all went outside and sat on the porch. It was a warm evening for early spring and the air smelled thick and green. There was an enormous weeping cherry tree on my front lawn and the flowers looked so fragile and beautiful it made me sad because I knew they wouldn’t last that way.

“Hey, butterfingers, how about a game of catch?” asked my grandfather. “Okay, I’ll get a ball. It’s in the backyard.”

As I retrieved my ball, I noticed the trash had just been put outside, and the lid on the garbage can was slightly askew. I don’t know exactly why but I lifted the lid and saw two huge and incriminating bottles labeled Mother’s Gefilte Fish. I decided not to dig, but I’m sure if I had, I would have uncovered the remains of that poor carp that had resided in my bathtub.

End note: About those lessons from Passover, one sentence from the Haggadah (the text of the seder) that touches me every year: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them … You shall love them as yourself … .”


7 thoughts on “A Fishy Tale

  1. Pat Mitchell says:

    Janet. Reading your funny, lovely memory of Passover just after reading NYT Food section prompted me to make some Seder macaroons. They are delicious. Next year, I’ll try another dish, and I’m not even Jewish.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Love macaroons. Sounds like fun.

  2. Nancy G says:

    Wonderful memories. Although this is the second year without family around our table, we will be on Zoom again, and “visit” and tell stories, as we do every year. Hag Samaach (or however to make the Hebrew into American English).

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      We won’t have family this year either. I’ve invited two fully vaccinated friends to share the seder with us. We both have had both shots, too.

  3. Susan Spock says:


    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Thank you!

  4. cynthia tilson says:

    Absolutely beautiful, Janet. I’ll bet your Passover seder dinners are as memorable as this wonderful story you wrote! Can’t wait…

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