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.)
Shira Klapper is a writer and researcher, and is working on a book based on her article about bat mitzvah culture in 1980s Long Island.