Gefilte fish is an endangered species this Passover

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A platter of homemade gefilte fish.
Tuesday Monday night marks the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the exodus from Egypt with a superlong meal interspersed with responsive readings and songs and the consumption of large quantities of Manischewitz wine. The Passover menu consists of a number of symbolic foods that represent various stages of the epic journey from slavery to freedom, but in most households, the most sacred of all is gefilte fish.

Gefilte fish are actually fish balls, usually made from a mixture of ground whitefish and pike or carp, traditionally eaten cold with a garnish of horseradish. If this sounds disgusting, it's because it is, particularly if your fish comes with little globules of fish jelly clinging to it, but it's the sort of disgusting thing that is considered a delicacy, particularly if your family is descended from eastern European Jews who fled the czar, the Cossacks, and the pogroms, often with little more than the gefilte fish recipe. These recipes are sacred, held close and carefully passed from generation to generation. (My own family's comes from my maternal great-grandmother, who only relinquished it mere months before she died. Every Passover, someone marvels at what a close call we had.) They cannot be altered.

But this year, thanks to the cold, cold winter, Lake Superior is still frozen, and there's a severe shortage of whitefish. And Passover is less than a week away.

Reader senior theater critic Tony Adler attempted to place his order yesterday morning. (His ancestral recipe calls for three parts whitefish to one part carp pike.) He called Burhop's in Wilmette, from which he orders his fish every year. His request, he reports, was met with a long, hard burst of laughter.

"We should have 200 pounds," explains Burhop's manager Ademola Olurotimi. "Ten or 20 pounds is what we do have. We've been promised a few tomorrow, but that's not even guaranteed."

Even if you can get your hands on some whitefish, you'll be paying for it: prices have spiked to $18 a pound, up from the usual $12.

Most of Burhop's fish comes from Union Fisheries, a supplier on the northwest side that deals with the fishermen directly. In most years, early April, the Passover season, is their busiest time, but this year they can't even get their boats out. This is catastrophic for them, Olurotimi says, because they depend on the Passover rush to make the year's profit. The customers have generally been pretty understanding once Olurotimi explains the situation—you'd have to be a real asshole to continue to bitch about your gefilte fish when other people are losing a substantial portion of their annual income.

The sad option.
  • maneschewitz.com
  • The sad option
Sunset Foods, the suburban grocery chain, is still taking and filling orders. That's because Sunset ordered its fish from suppliers several months in advance, says Ron who works at the fish counter at the Highland Park location. The fish, however, are smaller than normal, he suspects because they've been caught in traps closer to shore.

Olurotimi has offered his customers a few suggestions for substitutions for whitefish, but most people have been dubious. After all, they did not have tilapia in the old country (though there's some evidence that tilapia existed in ancient Egypt). Nor rainbow trout. Both have a milder flavor than whitefish, which is kind of missing the point. This shit is supposed to be pungent.

But who knows? Maybe the presence of whitefish is itself the result of an ancient recipe mutation. Maybe gefilte fish made from tilapia isn't so bad—at the very least a better alternative to no gefilte fish at all.

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