by Jonathan Paul Katz (New York, NY)
Herring started out as a childhood favorite. Thus, I never thought I would think of it as anything more than a comfort food.
I was introduced to herring by my grandfather, who loved to stock the house with dark bread and pickled herring on his annual visits to our family in New York. I tried it and loved it: the sweet and sharp acidity of the brine, the fleshy fishiness of the herring, and the way the whole thing stood so nicely on the toast.
One bite at six turned later into one piece of toast with herring on it, which then turned into a passion by the time I was in high-school. I loved pickled fish of all kinds, and that mythical childhood herring was right on top.
When I visited my grandparents in Israel, my grandfather and I would eat herring together in our strange South African and Ashkenazi Jewish ritual: him daintily and elegantly, and me with my crumb-scattered American abandon. Herring was simply the taste of childhood glee.
And then I dated a young man in college. I will not go into all the trauma he put me through during and after the relationship. It could have been worse, but it was not good, and for several months I sought paths away from an increasingly harmful relationship. I felt increasingly controlled emotionally by him, and there were moments of physical control, as well, and I lashed back to protect myself, my Judaism, and some of my favorite foods, as well.
As it happens, he did not like herring.
I found this out while he followed me as I shopped for Passover. We stood in the aisles of the supermarket near my university where there was a Passover selection for the neighborhood’s Jewish population. I stood there and saw jars of kosher-for-Passover herring, free of pesky (and chametz) malt vinegar, on the top shelf of the fridge.
“Look!” I told the boy. “Herring!”
“Ugh,” he said, “my dad likes to eat that stuff. Do you really have to buy it?”
I thought of all the things I didn’t like that I did for him. Public displays of affection, mayonnaise, and things far worse. I reached over to grab a jar, and was relieved to find that he refused to kiss me after I ate any herring.
I broke up with him that Passover, although the ghosts of the trauma of that relationship still nag me six years later. And somehow the taste of herring became associated with that relationship. Not from the fact that it was something that caused conflict, but rather because it was the taste of me making a decision for myself, regardless of his input.
In the months that followed, as I nursed my psychological wounds, I ate a lot of herring. On bread, on matzah, in salad, and even in pasta. Every Kiddush at a synagogue, I found myself helping myself to herring. Even now, I cannot resist.
Herring is now the taste of freedom and strength, and not just that of happy childhood memories beside my grandfather. Of course I eat it because it is delicious, but it is also a reminder that I am still autonomous and strong. And, boy, does autonomy taste good.
I think my grandfather would be proud. He died last year, but that taste for herring that he inculcated in me is still alive.
When he is not guzzling herring, Jonathan Paul Katz is a civil servant and writer living in New York City. He writes Flavors of Diaspora, a culinary blog focused on Jewish food throughout history.