Gefilte Fish Shortage: Best Thing Since The Parting Of The Red Sea?

A shortage of gefilte fish is causing panic in the middle of Passover. But New York Times reporter Matt Chaban says some observant Jews are OK with not having to eat the love-it-or-hate-it appetizer.

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Speaking of religion still, if there's one thing that goes hand-in-hand with faith, it is generally food. There have been a number of different food shortages in this country you may have heard about lately. We reported on this program about the shortage of limes. We've seen reports of rising beef prices as well. But right now, during Passover, gefilte fish is in short supply. Matt Chaban joins us now from member station WESA in Pittsburgh. He wrote about this for the New York Times. Matt, welcome.

MATT CHABAN: Hey, Celeste. Happy Pesach.

HEADLEE: And to you.

CHABAN: Happy Friday, and I guess for the sake of pluralism, a good preemptive Eid to all the Muslim listeners out there.

HEADLEE: That's right. We're coming up on Easter as well. But let's talk about what gefilte fish is. I always refer to it as fish balls. But what we're really talking about here is a shortage of whitefish, right?

CHABAN: Correct. So because of - it's the 11th plague, we're calling it, the polar vortex is. Most of the whitefish in the nation which has replaced carp as the primary ingredient in gefilte fish because it's a little less harsh, a little less fishy in taste, has sort of taken over as the main ingredient in gefilte fish. So there's been a shortage of that because the Great Lakes, believe it or not, are still largely frozen. And it's created a real problem for the fishermen up there.

HEADLEE: But if you had to, you could make gefilte fish out of carp or pike or even mullet, right?

CHABAN: Certainly. I met a gentleman from the Upper West Side in Manhattan. He's been going to South Williamsburg, which is a Hasidic community in North Brooklyn. And he said he'd been going for over 30 years to get his supplies. And this is the first time he couldn't get whitefish to make his own gefilte. And to the listeners out there who are thinking, but I got my Manischewitz this year, one of the ironies is sort of the more observant you are, the harder a time you had it.

Big suppliers like Manischewitz, they do their purchasing up to a year in advance because they've actually been through shortages in the past. And it's such an in-demand item, even though not every Jew loves it and most of the people who do eat it joke that they eat it more as an obligation than as a culinary treat. You know, there was plenty of Manischewitz, and then issues sort of worked their way down. Some of the mid-level suppliers, brands people in New York might know, like A&B Famous, Russ and Daughters, Benz's, they had - they were pretty good. You know, maybe they were giving out a little less, and then for the really observant people who don't like processed food - because, God forbid, there could be the tiniest speck of wheat in there, so they only make their own - they're the ones actually who were hurting the most because they were having a hard time getting the raw fish to make their own gefilte.

HEADLEE: This is a seasonal thing, though. Next Passover, we won't have this problem?

CHABAN: Actually, there's a fishery specialist at MSU that was telling me things could actually be bountiful next year, that the ice created a really calm environment up in the lakes, so the fisheries were undisturbed by the weather and fishing and all kinds of things. And so actually, there could be an abundance of whitefish next year.

HEADLEE: If you like gefilte fish, that's good news. If you don't...


CHABAN: There was...

HEADLEE: ...Very different headline.

CHABAN: One of our readers in the comments section joked that this is - the gefilte fish shortage is the best thing to happen since the separating of the Red Seas.

HEADLEE: (Laughing) New York Times reporter, Matt Chaban. Matt, thanks so much.

CHABAN: Thanks, Celeste.

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