Once upon a time, our chavurah decided to have the break-the-fast meal at a new(ish) family’s house rather than at one of the usual rotations. The family had a large, open floor plan with plenty of space for a kids’ table and an adult table and enough space in between the two so each party could temporarily forget the other existed. I remember regular rotation adults being giddy about this dinner.
We, resigned younglings such as we were, filed in polite-style around the children’s table. We sat in awkward, formal clumps around the pristine white table-clothed altar of our impending fortune, elbows carefully avoiding the elegant blue woven placemats and linen napkins folded into fancy not-squares. The easy chatter that rides the honest interest of children flitted across the wrinkle-free tabletop like hope that thinks it’s confidence.
Most of us weren’t school buddies or best buddies; we were random grabs flung together a few times a year for Jewish occasions; our independent social circumstances had to be left at the door to give ground for a connection based entirely on a common difference we were all still trying to understand. When we gathered, in button riddled shirts and pressed pants and real miniature ties and carefully coiffed side ponytails and mary janes and floral catastrophes often made memorable by the harsh lace rebuttal strewn across things that would have otherwise been collars and hemlines, our demeanor towards each other was always an odd mix of warm familiarity and routine pre-pubescent side eye held in check by the baffling urgency of every religious demand made upon our schedules.
Every break-the-fast feast had staples. Kugel, obviously. Salmon. We grew up in the ’80s, though, and gefilte fish was a thing. Like, from-a-jar gefilte fish. Not everyone liked it, but it wasn’t universally hated. It was maybe like olives; lots of people were fine with it, but of course there were the few who screamed loudly and frothily every time it was served.
New(ish) Family had made homemade gefilte fish.
We could smell it before it had been served to our table.
And the aura with which it was presented was one of ‘BE THE FUCK RESPECTFUL THIS IS HOMEMADE GOT THAT YEAH SHHH’.
So we’re all at this fancy ass table with our fucking homemade gefilte nightmare crawling around on our plates. And some of us were polite (not me, but some of us were). Finally, after several very quiet struggle bites, the very most politest of us put their forks down and said, quietly,
“This isn’t good. I can’t eat this.”
They looked at me with the direness that only happens when you are worried about dying from public puking mortification, and I realized, I am Skilled for this specific emergency. I have experience. I can do this. I can help.
So I nodded somberly at all of them and said,
“We have two options. We can take tiny bits of this and place it under our placemats evenly so they still look flat from the top. We do it slow, so the parents can’t tell, right? Or, we can put bits of it in our napkins. Leave the napkins rumpled up on our plates so they don’t look weird lumpy on the side.”
The other kids think I am insane.
I mean, maybe, tho.
I nod, again, severely.
“Yeah. It works. The placemat thing is gold because no one will look there till after we’re gone.”
I hadn’t even finished that last line before the rest of the table was slyly slipping bits of disaster fish under the mats. Politest Child was grief stricken at the deception, but did it, which should just tell all of you how much that ish tasted like botulized punishment.
We found the hidden matzah, we got rugelach, we left.
New(ish) Family moved away a few weeks later.
It probably wasn’t the fish.