Herring: The Chosen People’s chosen fish

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In 1928, F.F. Cooper, the editor of the Canadian Jewish Review, published a polemic against the disenchantment of Jewish youth with traditional Jewish observance. At a dance hall cabaret attended by a Jewish girls’ club, he observed that ice cream and meat sandwiches had been served. And not just any meat – ham sandwiches!

“As to the ham sandwiches,” Cooper wrote, “well, they are the logical downfall of a generation that knows not herring. Pickled herring, of course, with onions, allspice, peppercorns and whatever else it takes.” Lamenting that the paths to upward mobility “are cluttered with chunks of herring dropped, it is hoped, with reluctance but in the interest of elegance,” he exhorted his readers to raise their children in traditional eastern European foodways “that keep the stomach Jewish when the mind has wandered away.”


Herring may be a solution to ham sandwiches, but Jews are hardly the only people who depend so heavily on these creatures. The history of herring has been well documented by clupeophiles, lovers of clupea harengus, whose passionate affinity for the small, salty fish often borders on obsession. And with good reason: this little fish has a long history of affecting the geopolitical and economic history of at least the last 1,000 years. Herring bones have been found in Scandinavian tombs dating to Neolithic times. Icelandic merchants were exporting dried, salted fish to Europe as early as the 10th century.
“The Hanseatic League, the medieval economic guild, came into being because the Germans had the salt that the Scandinavians coveted as a preservative for their herrings, and British and Dutch sea power was built on the back of the herring trade,” wrote R.W. Apple in the New York Times in 2002.

The bounty of the fish created a vibrant economic network across large stretches of land, inspiring international trade routes that harnessed the technology of the times – both mechanical and scientific – to transport cheap, perishable goods to the farthest inland reaches of Europe. (Herring shoals are infamously fickle: in bays where they suddenly appeared, small seaside towns in the Baltic and North Seas became rich overnight. When the shoals suddenly moved on, the same towns were left baffled and bereft.)

Then how did herring become so closely associated with Jewish cuisine? Here, the bagel may be instructive. In We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans, food historian Donna R. Gabaccia explains that bagels only became identified as “Jewish” once Jewish bakers began to sell them to their urban, multi-ethnic neighbours. The bagel, Gabaccia writes, “highlights the ways that the production, exchange, marketing and consumption of food have generated new identities – for food and eaters alike.”

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Herring first reached Jewish markets in the 15th century. Donald S. Murray, author of Herring Tales: How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, explains that the Dutch first salted fresh fish in the 15th century, in order to preserve them for the long journey from the North Sea to ports and cities across Europe. Receiving the pre-salted fish in barrels, Jews became prominent traders of herring, “importing and transporting the herring by rail to Germany, Poland and Russia and selling it in stores and from pushcarts,” according to Jewish cookery writer Claudia Roden. Food historian John Cooper writes that as early as the 15th century, the Austrian-Jewish diet consisted of “milk, butter, black bread, eggs, cheese, soup, vegetables, sauerkraut, rice and herring.”

According to writer, translator and playwright Michael Wex, author of Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It, herring was the “national fish of Yiddishland.” Indeed, the little fish attained significance not only on Yiddish palettes, but also in Yiddish sensibilities. The ubiquity of herring on poor Jewish tables throughout Europe lent the fish status as a particular socioeconomic marker. “B’makom she’eyn ish, iz hering oykh a fish” (“Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish”) goes the Yiddish proverb, meaning that when the best is not available, an inferior substitute will do. Herring, which was considered poor people’s food, is hardly “worthy.” But if the ideal is not available, we make do with what we can get.

(The concept of herring as a poor man’s food appears in the well-known song Lomir ale zingn (Let’s All Sing). In it, a child asks, “Tell me, father, what is dogim?” The father responds, “For the rich, dogim is a pike so fresh it’s still flopping. For us – oy, poor folks – dogim is a spoiled little herring.”)

The herring trade has long been tied to the Jewish experience. An article headlined “Herring Antisemitism,” which ran in a 1916 issue of the New York Yiddish daily Der Tog, reported that Jewish herring purveyors in Lower Manhattan had been excluded from a trade agreement between non-Jewish herring merchants and the Canadian government.

In America, herring is the food only of Jews, Russians and Poles – in short, for immigrants who come from herring-eating lands like Russia and Galicia,” the article argued. “If a Yankee eats a herring once in a while, he learned it from a Jew, who brought the herring trade with him to America from Scotland, Holland and Norway.”

There is certainly some truth to that statement. In 1916, the herring industry was an important part of New York’s economy. These Jewish merchants, Der Tog reported, had rescued the herring trade in New York when the onset of the First World War severely impacted fish imports from Scotland and Norway, raising prices by 30 per cent.

“As always and everywhere, Jewish enterprising and vigour quickly found a solution,” according to the article. Sure enough, Jewish herring importers made contacts in Alaska and Nova Scotia, reviving the herring trade in New York until non-Jewish fish dealers with their own contacts in Canada excluded them from a mutual trade agreement with the Canadian government. It was not only an economic blow to Jewish herring sellers, but also a socio-religious one. “This is herring anti-Semitism,” Der Tog announced, “and it must be called out.”

In the early 20th century, the Yiddish press was full of news from the herring market on both sides of the Atlantic. For some – like the net-menders, barrel-makers, salt merchants, curers, shippers, dealers and retailers – the ups and downs of the herring trade had immediate and tangible economic consequences. For others, like the editor of the Canadian Jewish Review in 1928, the reverberations from the herring trade were more abstract (though manifesting at times in the form of a treif sandwich).

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Local Jewish cookbooks and newspaper advertisements from the mid-20th century reveal interesting patterns and preferences in regards to herring. The first edition of Hadassah-WIZO’s Naomi Cook Book, published in 1928, featured no fewer than six recipes for herring: marinated herring, chopped herring, herring patties, baked herring, herring in sour cream and herring in wine sauce. All six recipes called for fresh herring that is cleaned and soaked overnight.

But not everybody was so infatuated by herring. In B’nai Brith Women’s Council cookbooks from the 1960s and ’70s, herring appears only rarely, sometimes replaced by dishes like “Anchovy and Egg,” which calls for “1 small can anchovy fillets.” Joel Dickau, a researcher with the Culinaria Research Centre, a food-studies hub at the University of Toronto, explains that “in the postwar period, we begin to see the integration of canned products into cookbook recipes.”

Indeed, in the revised 1948 edition of the Naomi Cook Book, herring is still present (pickled two ways, chopped and in an omelet), and instructions for working with the fish follow the form of the earlier 1928 edition. But the 1948 edition also includes a recipe for “tuna fish chow mein,” of which four of the eight ingredients are tinned.

Advertisements for herring filled the pages of the Canadian Jewish press in the postwar period. Notably, these advertisements did not feature wholesale barrels of fresh herring from Nova Scotia, but herring sold in gleaming glass jars. In 1948, Golden’s, which is based in Montreal, sold jars of skinless, boneless herring in wine sauce and, as of 1949, chopped herring, as well.

This was modern herring for the modern cook, as North American Jews settled into the consumer-driven, suburbanized economy of the day. “The idea of buying fish out of a barrel – there’s no appetite for that kind of thing after the 1930s,” said Dickau. “As soon as something is available in a produced, modern way, that demand falls.”

As the 20th century wore on, herring became steadily less fashionable as a dish to be served at a luncheon or tea. Brought out sometimes for a festive holiday meal or breakfast, herring began to show signs that it was becoming a food of nostalgia and tradition, at least according to the women collecting fashionable recipes for their annual cookbooks. In recent years, though, herring has enjoyed something of a revival.

The New Nordic Cuisine has been deeply influential in the culinary world, inspiring all kinds of back-to-your-roots Scandinavian cooking, and reviving age-old preservation techniques – such as smoking, curing and pickling – which are generally used on cold-weather fish, such as herring. Coinciding with this culinary trend is the 40-year-old cultural phenomenon of celebrating eastern European Jewish culture – the same impulse that drove the klezmer revival in the ’70s and ’80s – not to mention the establishment of Yiddish courses at universities.

Today, herring is still on the menu at the century-old United Bakers Dairy Restaurant in Toronto. The brined fish is tangy and acidic, sweet and creamy, served with onions in a sour cream sauce. It tastes remarkably like the recipes used by a lot of people’s bubbes.

Still, newcomers to the renascent Jewish food movement, like the founders of New York’s Gefilteria, argue that nostalgia is not the whole story.

“Gefilte fish is not just about your bubbe. It is not about kitsch or a foodie revolution,” the restaurant declares in its mission statement, a sort of gefilte manifesto. “Gefilte is about reclaiming our time-honoured foods and caring how they taste and how they’re sourced. It is about serving a dish with pride, and not simply out of deference to hollow convention.”

At United Bakers, you won’t find herring on the menu under “Fish,” but in a section called “Apps from the Shtetl.” Together with gefilte fish and cabbage rolls, herring occupies a different space, literally and figuratively. More than simply nostalgia, herring is a link between new generations and the tastes, diets and experiences of their ancestors.

Herring in glass jars may have been the way of the postwar consumer and the Canadianized Jewish immigrant, but that innovation is only as old as the industrialized food system. Today, Jewish herring has flopped back out of the hermetically sealed jar, to be enjoyed again as it was for hundreds of years. The turn away from industrialized food provides us with the opportunity to rethink our own personal eating preferences.

“What are the foods we eat because they’re practical and available, and what are the foods we eat with purpose, with intention – as symbolic foods that allow us to consume our own identity?” asked Dickau. If ham sandwiches were once the “logical downfall” of Jews who didn’t eat herring, what is the logical ascent of those of us who do?

Miriam Borden is the co-ordinator of UJA Federation’s Committee for Yiddish and
a PhD student in Yiddish at the University of Toronto.