When you think Seattle seafood what do you think of? Salmon? Sushi? Lutefisk?
Whatever it is it’s probably not the traditional Jewish poached whitefish patty known as gefilte fish.
But that was the star attaction at Monday’s “Gefilteria” pop-up restaurant at Capitol Hill’s stylish Café Barjot. And I’ll admit it was surprising to see so many fashionable young people biting into a dish that’s more often the butt of a joke than the feature of a foodie menu.
“Our mission is to look back and ask not just ‘What are we losing?’ but ‘What have we lost over the years?’” explains Jeffrey Yoskowitz describing his and Gefilteria co-founder Liz Alpern’s passion for reviving “Old World Jewish Food” for a new generation, “There are a lot of foods that are not really popular now but were part of everyday life.”
Much of that food was on display Monday. There was the gefilte fish (the only artisan-made version in the whole U.S.), blood red pickled beets drizzled with herb-flecked schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), rye bread kugel (a kind of casserole) served in piping hot mason jars and cabbage rolls smothered in fresh, sweet tomato sauce.
Yoskowitz and Alpern were visiting from Brooklyn this week at the invitation of (fellow Seattle Globalist writer) Anna Goren and her sister Molly. Seattleites from a half Sephardi (Jews historically from southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East), half Ashkenazi (Jews historically from eastern and central Europe) family, the sisters are hoping to help spark an Ashkenazi Jewish food movement in a city with too few Jewish food options.
“Growing up we went to Bagel Oasis for bialys and pumpernickel bagels,” remembers Anna Goren when asked where her family got Ashkenazi food when she was a kid. But Goren says that Sephardic food — a more Middle Eastern style cuisine — got more play in her household growing up, “I didn’t even think about Ashkenazi food until I met [Alpern and Yoskowitz].”
It’s a common complaint among Jews and non-Jews alike. I myself fell in love with matzo ball soup and whitefish salad sandwiches during college in New York City. But there’s just not a lot of great Jewish food in Seattle.
Ryan Rosensweig, who was at Monday’s Gefilteria pop-up, says he’s tried the few Ashkenazi food spots around town including Goldberg’s Famous Delicatessen in Factoria Mall and a latke-centric food truck called Napkin Friends. But he misses the robust food scene he left back in Cincinnati when he moved here three years ago.
The Gefilteria menu is full of updates on his family’s favorite dishes and he delights in how the sinus searing (carrot-citrus) horseradish reminds him of his grandmother’s advice to eat the herb regularly to avoid sickness.
“For me the history of our people is so ingrained in the food we have,” he says, “For me it’s cultural but it’s also the history.”
That cultural presence is growing in Seattle, says Josh Furman of the University of Washington’s Hillel (a Jewish student organization). According to Furman a Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle study to be released officially next week shows there are 63,400 Jews living in Seattle today — a significant increase from the 37,000 counted approximately ten years ago (and 27,000 in 1990).
“There has been a huge upsurge of transplants coming to work at Amazon and Microsoft (plus some other tech companies),” writes Furman over email “A lot of these young adults now call Seattle home and are searching for community.”
Food will inevitably play a big part in that community building. But ensuring some of it is Ashkenazi cuisine means adapting an “old world food” to new tastes and regions. And Monday’s lineup boasted kimchi in the stuffed cabbage and locally foraged Pacific Northwest mushrooms in the kugel.
“Ashkanazi food travels,” says Yoskowitz explaining that it’s the food of immigrants “It adapts to where it goes.”
Even the gefilte fish he brought to Seattle had a little salmon in it.