Help Us Solve This Gefilte Fish Mystery - Gastro Obscura
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Help Us Solve This Gefilte Fish Mystery

Do you remember a spoof news segment about this traditional Jewish food?

Gefilte fish is usually eaten at Passover, and is traditionally made of fish such as carp and pike.
Gefilte fish is usually eaten at Passover, and is traditionally made of fish such as carp and pike. Edsel Little/CC BY-SA 2.0

There are many, many jokes about gefilte fish. There are the ones about how to catch it and how to cook it. Jokes about it swimming through the sea; hanging out in lakes; and chatting to its carrot brethren. But gefilte fish does none of these things: It’s a dish, not an animal. And therein lies much of the humor.

For the uninitiated, gefilte fish is sometimes described as the kosher equivalent of haggis or scrapple: bits of fish, minced with onions, matzoh, and eggs; cooked; and then served cold with horseradish and a slice of carrot. At its best, it’s light and flavorful; at its worst, it’s decidedly pungent. Either way, it’s a Jewish cultural mainstay—and often the punchline of a joke.

But in the late 1960s, or perhaps the early 1970s, a local news television station in New York took the joke a little bit further. According to a spoof news report, gefilte fish had gone missing from the waters of New York, and no one knew what to do about it. “What I remember,” Doug Fisher, a journalism instructor at the University of South Carolina, writes in an email, “was one of their younger male reporters standing in his overcoat looking very serious with the Hudson River in the background. He’d done a package on this supposed shortage, had ‘experts’ explaining how the fish somehow were not spawning in the lakes upstate and then swimming down the river—or something like that. It’s been a long time, after all.”

Fisher remembers it as an April Fool’s prank, likely broadcast on WCBS-TV. As he recalls, the package ended and the camera cut back to then-anchor Jim Jensen, “who lost it as much as he ever did (which was not much).” Scores of people were allegedly fooled by the news segment. (They missed a well-placed reference to April 1st at the end of the report.)

The tale is briefly corroborated in the Oxford Companion to Food, which describes sorrowful fishermen “declaring they hadn’t seen even one [gefilte fish] in a long while.” But its editor and author, Alan Davidson, died in 2003, and fellow editors Tom Jaine and Helen Saberi don’t have access to his notes. Other references to the prank are sparse, and we have yet to find someone who can tell the tale in full.

We want to know the story behind this spoof news report, so we’re asking for your help. Where did it air? Whose idea was it? Who was the mysterious reporter? And how many people fell for it, hook, line, and sinker?

If you know anything about this mysterious prank, or know how we can get hold of the story, please get in touch by emailing natasha.frost@atlasobscura.com.

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