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Hurricanes, Holidays And Heirloom Gefilte Fish

three views of a vintage can of Rokeach gefilte fish
photos by Larry Elkin

Early one Sunday in August 1992, I turned on my weather radio (weather was my thing) and heard that Hurricane Andrew had abruptly blown up into a major storm, heading straight for South Florida.

Andrew was no threat to the vacation house my wife and I had bought several years earlier in a beachside community near Palm Coast, nearly 300 miles north of Miami. But it was a distinct threat to Aunt Claire, my mother’s older sister, who was pushing 80 at the time and lived alone in a senior community in Sunrise, Florida.

Sunrise is inland from Fort Lauderdale, well away from potential storm surge, and Aunt Claire’s condo was high enough that freshwater flooding wasn’t a concern. But I knew that a direct hit from a storm Andrew’s size could knock out power for an extended period. Even if her building did not sustain major damage, the post-storm Florida heat could pose a mortal threat to senior citizens (as we all saw to our horror with the tragic deaths last week in a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home). I decided Aunt Claire could not wait out the storm at home, and that I would be the one to do something about it.

So I grabbed a flight to Fort Myers, on the state’s west coast, and rented a car to drive east over Alligator Alley toward Fort Lauderdale. I had the distinct impression I was going the wrong way, as evacuees flooded westward away from the incoming storm, and the radio blared calls for doctors and other personnel to report for duty at local hospitals.

I had called Aunt Claire to let her know I was coming. She gathered a few items for her evacuation: a small suitcase with some extra clothes, her best friend who lived downstairs and a can of gefilte (ga-FIL-tah) fish. Don’t ask me why she felt the need to pack a Jewish delicacy typically served on holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year (which coincidentally began last night).

I loaded Aunt Claire, her friend – who turned out to be a cranky old lady who was no fun at all on a five-hour drive – and the fish-bearing suitcase into the rental car, and we set off. Florida’s Turnpike was jammed with northbound refugees, but in contrast to the recent evacuation ahead of Hurricane Irma, Interstate 95 was reasonably clear heading up toward Palm Coast. We arrived safely and spent the next morning watching the news of Andrew’s destruction in Dade County, south of Miami. Sunrise and the rest of Broward County were largely spared. After a day or two, when we had time to confirm with neighbors that the power was on at her home, I put Aunt Claire and her friend on a plane in Jacksonville, dropped off the rental car and returned to New York.

The gefilte fish, however, remained behind. I still have it in the cupboard at the house in Palm Coast. At first it was an oversight, then it became a joke, and finally – I realize you may think this is bizarre – it became an heirloom. A somewhat disturbing and potentially dangerous one, to be sure, but an heirloom nevertheless.

Friends and relatives sometime ask to use the house for vacations when we are not there. When we granted permission, it was always with a warning: Don’t eat the gefilte fish in the cupboard. I would tell the story of Aunt Claire and the evacuation. All the veterans at Palisades Hudson know the story, too. Led by Paul Jacobs, who was then a young associate in New York and now is an Atlanta-based vice president, they had a tree planted in Israel in memory of Aunt Claire after she died in 2004. Now that my home base has moved south, a commemorative certificate hangs on the wall next to my office desk in Fort Lauderdale.

The can of gefilte fish is the only item I have that belonged to Aunt Claire, whom I saw frequently when I was growing up in the Bronx and she lived nearby. Aunt Claire and Uncle Ken moved to New Jersey in the early 1970s. She relocated to Florida after my uncle died in 1975, remarried and enjoyed some very happy years before being widowed again and living out her years alone. Aunt Claire subsidized my expenses when I was in college in Montana, and would always ask “Is there anything you need or want?” when I called her after I got out of school. I never needed or wanted anything by that point, other than to stay in touch.

I like gefilte fish, especially the sweet kind like the Rokeach brand that Aunt Claire brought to Palm Coast. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that young Jewish foodies tend to dismiss commercially prepared gefilte fish sold in jars, which is how they mostly do it these days. I’m not sure these foodies have ever seen gefilte fish in a can (though it does still exist).

The Journal quoted one individual saying the jarred fish has a shelf life of four years. I don’t know how long canned gefilte fish is supposed to stay safe. I note with some interest that researchers this summer declared some 106-year-old fruitcake “almost edible” after being left in Antarctica by the ill-fated explorer Robert Falcon Scott. That fruitcake had been kept in a tin. A tin is just a can without the vacuum sealing, so perhaps there is some life left in my gefilte fish. But Florida is not Antarctica, and I do not intend to try it and see.

Hurricanes are awful things. They take lives and reduce communities to rubble. From Bermuda to Cape Hatteras to the Caribbean, the ocean bottoms are littered with hundreds of wrecks caused by hurricanes over the centuries. Each one is a tragic story and a graveyard, now known only to sea creatures and scuba divers.

But on their fringes, hurricanes can bring drought-busting rains. They can also bring lifelong stories and fond memories. And gefilte fish. With thoughts of all who are suffering right now from the Caribbean to the Keys and elsewhere as a result of the recent storms, best wishes to everyone of all faiths for a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

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