In 1982, I purchased my first video camera, which in those days consisted of a twelve-pound camera connected by cable to a fifteen-pound tape deck, which you carried on one shoulder, while balancing the camera on the other shoulder, all the while making sure that the cable doesn’t get caught say, on a doorknob and ruin the shot. I had brought the camera home for Pesach to record my grandmother’s gefilte fish-making process, a recipe I had heard about and tasted for many years but never actually witnessed… an old family recipe she learned to make as a child. Nana Lena was a natural in front of the camera. It didn’t hurt that I was the operator and, like the youngest child at the Seder, asking all the questions. She entered the room carrying a large white Styrofoam cooler. “Okeydokey, we’re on the way to the fishmaking, and it’s a big thing. This is the fish I got from the market… twenty-two pounds of rockfish, whitefish, and trout, which is about twelve pounds after it’s skinned and filleted, and about another pound that I clean off the bones. All that’s already taken care of. I didn’t want to leave everything to do in one day. Making fish is really a three-day process: a day to shop, a day to cook, and a day to cool.” She took each piece of fish out of the bag and washed it, squeezing off the excess water. “You don’t think I’m an old Bubbie, do you?”
“Of course not, Nana.”
“You see, I put a piece of waxed paper between each piece. Then I sealed it all inside a freezer bag. What are you doing, closing in on the fish? If Pat sees this, she won’t want to eat it.”
“Well, then, I won’t show the video to Pat until after dinner.” I zoomed in on her brown spotted hands, closing in on her big diamond ring. “Aren’t you going to take your ring off, Nana?”
“So I won’t lose it? So it can be yours someday? Oy, your mother would kill me. I was just thinking about what Bubbie Sareva would say. Sareva definitely wouldn’t like that. She removed her ring and placed it in the windowsill next to her violets. A huge pot of water heated on the stove. Nana started cuttingthe onions. “I’ve got five large onions here. Some of them go into the stock; the rest I’ll use in the fish later. I don’t measure, so I don’t know exactly how much I’ll be using. I can only tell when I feel the consistency of the fish; then I’ll know if I’ve got it right. “Let’s start with the stock.” She cut the onions, skins and all,right over the pot. “So you take the yellow skins and put it in the stock pot. It makes the fish nice and yellow, golden yellow. Now you’re going to be showing this to your children fifteen years from now, and they’re going to say that this lady must have been crazy putting the peel in the pot. And they probably won’t like what I’m going to do next either,” she said, as she took three large fish carcasses, heads and all, and dropped them into the steaming water. “The fish heads, that’s what gives you a good strong stock.” She looked up at my camera and said with a twinkle, “You know what it smells like?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Fish!” She laughed. “Now I’m going to add more onion peel and celery, and we’re going to put in the carrots. The carrots are cut thick, so you can take them out of the pot later and use a littleslice on top of the fish for decoration. That’s how Bubbie always made it, with the carrot on top. You think I’ll ever amount to being a cook, Amele?”
“You are the best cook I know, Nana.”
“That’s music to my ears.” She wiped her forehead with her elbow. “With that, I’ll tell you another story about when Bubbie was sick; I guess it was thirteen, no, fourteen years ago. It was just this time of year, and I made everything early and took a whole Pesach tray to the hospital to her. She was most appreciative. She took a bite of the fish, and she looked up at me and spoke to me apologetically. “Lena, you won’t mind if I tell you something?” And I said, “No, Mama, what?” She said. “Der fish darf einkoch’n eine halbe sho.” “Do you know what I said?” Nana Lena asked me.
“The fish has to cook about a half hour longer?”
“Very good! Your Yiddish is improving. I knew it had to cook a little longer, but I didn’tthink it was a half hour. I was in a hurry because I wanted to get it over to Mama for her Passover meal before we had our Seder. I took the whole Pesach Seder dinner to her, and I know she enjoyed it. Especially my matzie balls.”
“All my married years, I’ve made gefilte fish for the holidays,and when the grandchildren came along and they loved it as much as they did, I felt that as long as I can stand on these two old legsand make it, I will.”
“You know we love it, Nana.”
That was a glimpse of what Passover preparations were like in Nana Lena's kitchen. I'll always remember the fun we had preparing the seder meal. Tell me about your family experiences and share your recipes by commenting below.