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How Herring Brought My Father and Me Together—Once I Overcame My Gag Reflex

For 30 years, I turned up my nose at my dad’s favorite fish. Then I tried it, and finally understood its briny appeal.

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I can’t remember the day I became aware of herring. It would be like remembering the moment I knew there were such things as trees or hands. Nor can I pinpoint the first time I took note of my father’s Saturday morning herring routine. But I do know that by the age of consciousness, I could expect Saturday mornings to unfold this way: My father would get dressed, go downstairs, open the refrigerator door, take out a shallow plastic container, and carefully open the lid to remove three or four pieces of pink, shimmering, oily herring, which would slide and wriggle onto his plate as if they’d just been plucked from chilly waters off Scandinavia. And just as consistent as my father’s routine was the way my mother, my siblings, and I would react: with a combination of horror, disgust, and mimed gestures of gagging.

In fact, so great was our disgust with the smelly, slithering fish, that for a while, we made my father eat the herring outside. In the New York winter. In the snow.

While herring never touched my lips for the first 30 years of my life, I knew things about herring, just like a child who grows up in the schmatte business knows a thing or two about exports and imports. For example, I knew that not all herring is created equal. In fact, herring is so varied that a man’s choice in herring is nothing less than a window to his soul, a way of showing the world whether he is a kind, philosophical man, or a bore who never once stopped to smell the flowers. In the class hierarchy of herring, I was taught that matjes, my family’s choice, was for the classy, discerning, sophisticated people; pickled was for people who, though good and upright, did not have the finest taste; and schmaltz—God forbid, schmaltz—was for the shtetl folks, the peasant people who temperamentally are simply not able to discriminate.

Whether it’s true or not, I accepted the wisdom that herring was just another one of the Eastern European Jewish foods destined to fade away from modern cuisine, becoming the provenance of a small group of passionate connoisseurs. It was to be relegated to that dusty shelf, to sit alongside ptcha—warm, garlic jelly made out of calves’ feet—and kishka, stuffed derma so high in fat that the USDA classification system can barely categorize it. As far as my palate was concerned, I could have gone on living my life content without herring, even learning to make a certain peace with it, like an American in England watching people eat marmite—tolerant, if not a little disdainful.

But after years of theatrically gagging upon seeing my father eat herring, I gave in. For the first time, at age 30, I tasted it.

It was one of those Saturday mornings when I happened to be home. My father took out the herring; I made a horrified face. He said, “Shira, you like sushi right?” I nodded. “And sushi is raw fish?” I nodded, increasingly aware that I was being backed into a logical corner from which there would be no escape. My father continued: “Well, herring is raw fish also, just cured with spices, salt, and oil.” Now, I can recognize a good, logical argument when I hear one. I like—no, I love—sushi. Sushi is like herring. Therefore, perhaps, I loved herring?

I pierced the herring with a fork. I lifted it to my mouth with the ceremony of someone taking an elixir that, though vile, must be imbibed. I dropped it into my mouth.

It was intense. Acidic and biting, yet soft, almost meltingly tender. Sweet but salty, robust yet elusive. After my first bite, I was confused. The herring wasn’t necessarily delicious, but it was undeniably intriguing. It was as if herring was unknowable, so perplexing and disarming a combination of tastes that it was addictive by sheer virtue of its mystery. And I wanted to, well, know it again. So, I took a second piece. More flavors, more contradictions. Suddenly, after years of dismissing this modest fish, I understood my father’s passion for it, the artisan and poet’s search for the beauty and perfection that is found in a good piece of fish.

That’s how, in a matter of minutes, after a lifetime of forswearing this particular food, I came to sit down with my father at the same herring table. These days, when Saturday mornings arrive and I am at my parents’ house, I join my father in his weekly ritual, as we carefully open the lid of the herring container and eagerly await the first taste of our beloved fish. Will this week’s vintage be too salty, too oily, or will it achieve herring nirvana, that perfect harmony of spices and wine?

Recently I asked my father how he felt about my herring turnaround. “It was the happiest day of my life,” he answered, jokingly. “The only thing better will be your wedding day.” But I know he’s delighted about it, and I can detect a new enthusiasm in the texts and emails he sends before visiting me in D.C. “Mommy and I are going now to buy the herring,” he’ll write. “How much do you want? And if they have herring in cream, do you want to try that also?”

These days, when my father and I sit down to eat herring, my young nephew is the one who looks at the shiny, pink fish and wrinkles his nose. Like my father used to do, I dismiss this child with a laugh and a wave of my hand, knowing that in 20 years time, he’ll be sitting with us at the table.

(In the meantime, the annual “new catch” Holland herring arrives next week, promising herring nirvana for everyone.)


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Poupic says:

I ate herring and Hummus every morning, three beans salad and sardines for lunch to lower my cholesterol for a long while. My cholesterol went down and Gout appeared. Oy the pain! Today I long for herring, steak, beer, a little alcohol here and there. Why did I not do as your father did and limit myself to only once a week.

    frankgado says:

    (2nd try)
    Dear fellow sufferer: I had my first gout attack in my mid-20’s (I’m not 76). At first it was misdiagnosed (once I even had my foot in a cast. Shades of Charles Bovary!) Since those painful years of ignorance, I have seen gout experts on both sides of the Atlantic. Trust me: there is no reason for you to abstain. Eat all the steak you want–and any other kind of meat, including, if it’s OK with your rabbi, pork. Most of what is “known” about gout, even by physicians, is nonsense. Drink all the wine you want (and don’t confuse wine with the drain cleaner made from Concord grapes). But stay away from beer or ale. (I’m allowed 6 oz of beer every 6 weeks. Sometimes I cheat a little). And oily fish. No sardines, and especially, no anchovies. But I would risk pain and perdition for some matjes herring. And I’ll always hold close to my heart the big bag of smoked herring I left on a fence north of Gaevle.

      Poupic says:

      I have stopped taking Allopurinol, it raises my blood sugar. Instead, you will not believe this. I take 3 mouth full of dry parsley every morning. It is the highest concentration of epygenin, it does exactly what Allopurino does without the side effects. My uric acid went from 8.4 above the limit down to 7.2 in the normal range. Last week I had too much chicken and Salmon and I was getting ready for an attack. Nothing happen! I’ve beaten Gout?

        frankgado says:

        My brother: I’m at my allopurinol limit. I’ll try the parsley, but 3 mouthsful is an imprecise measure. Can you be a bit more exact? And why not fresh parsley?

        Chicken and salmon are NOT verboten. I eat both all the time–in large quantities, and they have never triggered a gout attack.

        Just stay away from beer, ale, sardines, and (especially) anchovies. The last is tough for me. As a Piedmontese, I live for bagna cauda in the autumn. I learned in Italy that the dish is Jewish in origin, and I have considered pitching an article about it to Tablet.

          Poupic says:

          I did not believe that it could help. I am skeptic by nature. BUt I was ready to try. I took one mouth full of the stuff for a while. I remain above the limit 8.4, 8.2. Then I took 2 mouth full, same story. I am not up to 3 mouth full every morning. For the first time in years my uric acid is now 7.2. I eat almost no meat, a little sa,mon and a little chicken. Vegetables, fruits, cheese and while wheat bread I bake weekly. As for your question why dry? It concentrates this flavonoid apygenin (the spelling?). The regular parsley doesn’t contain enough. My wife found the stuff. I do not understand those things. I do not take herbs generally.

          frankgado says:

          I’m very grateful for your attention to questions. I will try the remedy, but I still need to know how much constitutes a mouthful. Is each mouthful a tablespoon? Two? Five?

          I learned tonight that my rheumatologist–the man who liberated me from a list of dietary prohibitions–has retired, but I will pursue the matter with an open mind (and my mouth full of dried parsley. What do you drink to get it down?

          Again, thanks.


          Poupic says:

          That’s the problem with anything like that. There is no dosage. I tip my head back and fill my mouth. The I bite on a banana and drink Kefir or water. I chew then swallow. If I eat red meat, Oy the pain! No beer for many years now. Purine is the enemy. So I avoid food with high purine. If I were you, this is what I would do. Everything I read based on science say to avoid those food that have a high content of Purine. That is what I do.

          Guest says:

          “How much constitutes a mlouthful?” Classic Jewish question.

FirstStateJew says:

What a delicious article. It made me go my refrigerator for a quick snack….I never have my home without a reserve jar of (non-cream) herring bits. If that fish is good for the brains…all the better.

FirstStateJew says:

What a delicious article. It made me go my refrigerator for a quick snack….I never have my home without a reserve jar of (non-cream) herring bits. If that fish is good for the brains…all the better.

kotzk1 says:

Herring, far from being merely a Jewish food, is the worlds most caught fish.
Here, in Montreal, there is a good herring marinated with beets.
I, too, like Matjes, but not in oil.

    All food is good in Montreal. I recently had herring in wasabi sauce, which was excellent. Next I will try beets! -Shira

      kotzk1 says:

      The delicious herring I referred to with beets is actually packaged by a company called Feature Foods, from Ontario.
      Is the wasabi herring a commercial brand, and if so, what is its name?
      What most folk do not know is that herring, like other fat fish such as salmon, is a good source of hear healthy omega-3 fatty acids, though, on thenegative side, it is usually high in sodium.

        the wasabi herring was from Pomegrante in Brooklyn, an excellent kosher gourmet store. Jewish Brooklyn also takes their food very seriously!

      frankgado says:

      Shira, you write deliciously. (Would you, as a Klapper, be related to Stan and Stu?)

    frankgado says:

    True. I think it is more pervasively Scandinavian–and in a variety of preparations. I love them all–so long as they do not include senap (mustard). No, I lied. There is a northern Swedish version of herring that is fermented. Swedes, when they buy in the the supermarket, look for the most swollen cans. If one family in an apartment house opens a can, the stench inundates the rest of the house. Of course, it is washed down with prodigious quantities of braend vin –the higher the proof the better. Beware of this dish if you travel in Scandinavia!

David says:

This is a fantastic article. Do you know where your father buys his herring? I live in Baltimore and unfortunately am forced to buy Acme/Blue Hill Bay. The best I’ve tasted was Hadar (in a jar) from Montreal and one from a market called Super 13 in Boro Park (I think it was homemade?).

David says:

This is a fantastic article. Do you know where your father buys his herring? I live in Baltimore and unfortunately am forced to buy Acme/Blue Hill Bay. The best I’ve tasted was Hadar (in a jar) from Montreal and one from a market called Super 13 in Boro Park (I think it was homemade?).

    Great question. I think that the best herring comes from Super 13. I was just discussing with a friend where to find good herring in Baltimore or Silver Spring- isn’t there some old-timey place up there?

      David says:

      There is a “famous” butcher shop in Baltimore called Wasserman & Lemberger, but they sell only the stuff in a jar. Maybe we can start a business bringing in the good stuff from NY?

Wonderful article. Funny how I cant remember ever talking to your father about herring.

Wonderful article. Funny how I cant remember ever talking to your father about herring.

Jose Grunberg says:

Dear Shira, your life goes by in a privileged
era. My immigrant family moves from Galtizia shtetl to Uruguay, South America,
have not refrigerators. Herring were preserved in wooden barrels. We have not
choice, herring or nothing. We opt for the first option. A little bit, high
blood hypertension. It was an option with high cost effectiveness. A pity, neither
our son nor grand children, are in the nostalgia of the herring’s barrel. They
love burger, Jose de Uruguay

disqus_dc5yoYcO8z says:

ha! really enjoyed this story. very funny, thanks for sharing this.

George Fogel says:

We always had Skansen Matjes herring in our house, and I generally avoided it (like most fish…except gefilte fish on the holidays) growing up. A few years ago I finally decided to taste it…and yes, my reaction was pretty much the same as Shira’s…wow, what have I been missing?
Skansen is not available from my local supermarkets (in Arlington, VA) and the cost of getting it by mail order is about double the supermarket price, but my stop-gap supplier (in between visits to New York) is IKEA, which has a wall of various sorts of herring in jars. Their matjes herring is much closer to Skansen’s than any other one I’ve tried.

Shy Guy says:

30 years wasted!

edward serotta says:

It’s February, around five years ago. I’m invited by a German institute to speak in Minsk. I’m brought to a small restaurant and my German hosts apologize about the food one gets in Belarussia in winter. A buffet is before us: latkes, borscht, black bread, and herring three different ways. I almost weep from happiness.

Rita from Toronto says:

Dear Ms. Klapper. What a wonderful article. Unlike you, I always liked herring. I guess I am a peasant as schmultz was and remains my favourite. When my kids were young, my daughter would get to the kiddish in shul quickly to make sure she managed to get me a piece of herring before it all went. She of course, didn’t eat it!
As Sholom Aleichem once said “A wise word is not a substitute for a peice of herring” and he knew what he was talking about. Best wishes for your future herring consumption.

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How Herring Brought My Father and Me Together—Once I Overcame My Gag Reflex

For 30 years, I turned up my nose at my dad’s favorite fish. Then I tried it, and finally understood its briny appeal.

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