After some serious furrowed brow thinking I decided to go with a name for this blog that was about as true to myself, my love of food and story, and my heritage as I could get. Most folks don’t understand what I see in a plate of schmaltz herring, onion, and potato and I completely understand. It’s pungent and oily and its colors range from the white of the potato and onion to the yellow of the oil and to the silver/gray and pink of the fish. Photographing it in any instagram-appealing way would be a serious challenge.
But to me it’s perfect.
Herring and potatoes are comfort and love on a plate. Not only because my roots trace back across the Baltic Sea towards what were the shifting borders across eastern Europe and especially Poland but also because this dish was one of my bubbe’s most favorite things to eat.
Stopping at Russ & Daughters on the way home (Bubbe and I were roommates for a little) in the dead of winter, I would ask for a small cup of chicken liver salad, a quarter pound halva, and a schmaltz herring cut up with fresh onions on top. My order typically drew a raised eyebrow because my age didn’t match up with the things I was asking for and so I would smile and say it was for my bubbe. Ahh, that makes sense, their smiles and nods would seem to reply.
Coming into the apartment I would toss a couple potatoes in the microwave while Bubbe and I shared stories from our day. Well usually I was the one to share since by this point she was homebound without much will or ability to go outside and her days ran into each other. Sitting at the kitchen table she would ask me what I wanted to eat and what she could make for me even though I was busy opening containers and pulling down plates.
Nothing Bubbe! I brought home a surprise for us, I would say.
Something good I hope, she’d respond with a smile.
I promise you’ll like it, I’d reply as I’d drop a fork into the onions and oil, “fishing” for the herring.
The microwave would beep and I grabbed our hot potatoes and quartered them on the plate watching the steam spill out. On top of each I’d arrange the herring and onions and drizzle a little extra oil. Placing the plates on the table I would watch bubbe’s eyes light up as she sat up a little straighter getting ready. I’d place two big glasses of water on the table to gulp down after our salty treats and maybe we’d open a beer to share.
Eating at the speed of light we wouldn’t talk but nod back and forth about how good it was. Our forks felt like they were for show only – there to help us pretend we were civilized – as though eating with our hands was entirely unplanned. We’d pick out the bones with our fingers and make little herring-potato-onion sandwiches and quickly gobble them up. Soon there was nothing left and we’d each lean back contented, our eyes glazed over and our souls happy.
No, I’m full up to here she would say patting the underside of her chin with the back of hand. Up to here.Eating herring and bulbes brought back memories of her home and the past. As we let our supper settle bubbe would share stories about her family, food, and shtetl life. Now it was my turn to listen.Bubbe’s left us now and I eat herring a little less often. But whenever I’m on the Lower East Side I stop in to pick up a schmaltz herring and yes, please, raw onions on top. Then my husband and I sit in our kitchen remembering Bubbe, sharing stories, and eating plates full of herring and potatoes until we’re up to here.