So what’s doing in Lake Michigan,
the lady in the little red coat asks
the owner of Frank’s Fish Market,
mecca for bones, flesh, unseeing eyes of
snapper, salmon, perch.
Lake Michigan, where scaly whitefish
weave their way to Passover tables,
landing under redhot horseradish
as ovals of gefilte fish.
An acquired taste, introduced
to my palate in the war years
as I sat in my wooden high chair.
Fishy yet subtly sweet, static blob
topped by two carrot discs.
An acquired taste, unappetizing appetizer
the color of a newborn’s dimpled bottom.
So many voices at one table,
too mealy, too fishy,
too sweet, not sweet enough.
Does anyone want more?
Steering down the driveway,
car window open,
March April it’s spring,
pungent odor wafting across the lawn.
My widowed mother
stands in our kitchen,
as my daughters, twirling hair,
hug the butcher-block table.
Today’s lesson a curriculum of gefilte fish,
master class taught by Master Nana, in
gilt-threaded Daniel Green slippers
not unlike Aladdin’s. Wearing a Model Coat,
(flowered print, snaps from collar to hem),
she leans on the orange Formica counter.
She’d lugged the Oster grinder
from her kitchen thirty-five miles away.
What, she implores,
you still don’t have a grinder?
Lake Michigan wasn’t too cold this year,
the whities abundant, swimming swimming,
unaware of their destiny in the readied pot,
salted water rolling, steaming
the ceiling, splashing the stovetop.
Karen and Kate watch fish tubules
emerging from holes
in the grinder’s face, look look,
Nana’s making worms come out!
I tell them to write that down, draw a picture.
Onions enter the funnel,
out the front into the green bowl.
Mix mix throw in eggs a few, three?
She needs no measurements, whatever it takes.
Matzoh meal a pinch of salt pepper sugar.
She shapes the ovals, easing them
into the blistering liquid seasoned
with carrots, celery, stock
concocted from bones, heads,
did you get that on paper, girls?
Simmer simmer, Nana says,
tasting the liquid with
seven little mouthsounds,
puh puh puh puh puh puh puh,
fish kisses planted on the soupspoon.
Remember this, girls, seven tiny tastes in a row,
get it right get it right, only Nana knows how to make gefilte fish.
Today our house will reek,
embracing us with the
blessed scent of whitefish
all the way from Lake Michigan.
Write it down write it down
so we can remember.
Twenty-five, thirty years,
crayons crowd a table
hugged by busy grandchildren.
Passover, ovals from a jar
lying on lettuce beds.
When we gather in the dining room,
on Gefilte Fish Day, the youngest
in a plastic high chair wrinkling
her beauteous nose at
her fleshy portion,
we talk about the day
Nana taught Gefilte Fish School
while they wrote it down.
From Sugar and Sand (Full Court Press).
Used with the author’s permission.