I open the fridge, in the mood for a little nosherei to bridge the gaping chasm between lunch and supper, then it hits me — the tsunami of fish-stench that means I am in the unholy presence of chopped herring. The Husband has broken the First Commandment: Thou shalt not Shop Unescorted. This is not just because of Ben’s tendency to buy jazzy shirts if allowed to venture out free-range (fuchsia and black stripes, for goodness sakes – nice for a batmitzvah napkin maybe, but to wear?); it’s also because he has “Best-Before-Date Blindness” and has been known to return from the supermarket with enough food for an entire week, all with a Use-By date of tomorrow. If he nips out for cigarettes (another of my pet-hates, second only to the dreaded fishy spread), I sometimes ask him to buy a single item: a pot of double cream, say, but even then my fond farewell is not “Bye” or “Take care” but “Check the date!”
If we are hosting a tea for his extended family, it’s mandatory to have chopped herring. Ben insists it’s mitzvah no 614, and part of his birthright. He points out that all Jewish teas — whether for a simcha or a funeral —have essentially the same menu: open mini bagels and/or bridge rolls with the following toppings: smoked salmon, chopped egg, cream cheese, chopped herring. Sometimes tuna mayo may make an appearance if the hosts are wanting to show that they are a bit cutting-edge in culinary matters, but that’s as far as it goes. Cake (minimum of two types), mini-Danish and chocolate rugelach, biscuits.
It’s one of the great joys of doing a Jewish tea, he insists — you don’t need to think about what to serve; you just need to make sure that there’s too much of it. But the agreement we have, which I had written in as an addendum to our ketubbah, is that the chopped herring must be bought no more than 24 hours before the actual event to minimise the amount of time in which the herring and I will have to share occupancy of the same building. Once acquired, the tub is then placed in the fridge in a bag within a bag within a bag. I secure blue and white police cordon tape into position — DO NOT CROSS — to quarantine the afflicted shelf. And, as I know it is there, I can take an in-breath before I open the door, dash in for the milk like the SAS snatching back a hostage, and withdraw before I need another breath.
The old cliché that a woman marries a man who reminds her at some level of her father is never more true than when it comes to this love of food from the heim. My dad used to take us very occasionally to Bloom’s — where he seemed to relish the rude waiters with something like nostalgia — or more frequently to Carol’s, the salt beef bar in Soho.
There he would order salt beef, cold fried fish, or gefilte fish. I probably wasn’t the first child to assume that gefilte fish was a type of fish like cod or haddock, just one that never seemed to appear on the menu in any non-Jewish restaurants. Even the idea of cold fish sticking to the plate in a gelatinous glue makes me feel slightly queasy. Sometimes I used to position the menu between us as a screen so I wouldn’t have to witness it. I wish my grandmother (who fled Lithuania when she was a child with her mother and sister) had lived long enough that I could have quizzed her about why they left. My father always claimed that they were fleeing the pogroms, but I’m willing to bet that she was fleeing the horror of gefilte fish.
Thank goodness I only had to study biblical Hebrew and Jewish ethics on my conversion course; if they’d made me eat chopped herring and gefilte fish in one of the lessons, I’d just have had to throw up my hands and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do this — I’ll have to switch to Catholicism instead. I believe they’re offering a better menu.’
I am disturbed during this reverie by a sudden waft of Essence de Hareng Haché — Husband has zoomed in to ask me if I think we have prepared enough bridge rolls. His jowls are still moving from the ingestion of chopped herring so his breath is right up there at Danger Level One. Usually, I like to stay at arm’s length — or, ideally, in a different postcode — until he has brushed his teeth, flossed, gargled, scrubbed mouth with Brillo pad etcetera. But the guests are expected at any moment so there’s no time for all that. I avert my face and beg him:
‘Will you please, please just go outside and smoke a cigarette?’
Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things….) to affirm her Jewish status before a Rabbinical Board. She is a member of a Reform synagogue.