Bagels are my madeline; one bite and a lifetime’s worth of poppy seeds and bad breath spill forth. I’ve written much about bagels on the web–this tribute to Bagelworks in Boca Raton, a bagel love letter for Serious Eats–but I’ve written very little about a bagel topping that’s been a constant in my life and in the lives of many Jews who I hold near and dear: whitefish salad. What’s whitefish salad? Let me tell you all about it.
Whitefish salad is like tuna salad except it’s made with whitefish. That difference sounds unremarkable, but the differences between tuna and whitefish are significant. For starters, whitefish is much fishier than tuna. It’s also much oilier and more boney. Consequently, whitefish salad is a zillion times more flavorful than tuna salad–the oiliness and the fishiness give it a unique character similar to, though not nearly as strong as, sardines and/or anchovies. Like those oily fish, whitefish has a zip and a zing and elevates a humdrum bagel sandwich to the category of decadent treat. It also meets my criteria for good bagelage: it induces terrible breath. The worse your breath, the better the bagelage.
Growing up, my brother was always more of a whitefish salad fan than I was. Sitting at Bagelworks or a place called Boca Grove near Ross Dress for Less (where grandma would go after bageling with us) Michael would order the whitefish salad and I’d order a bagel with nova spread, my standard bagel fare. Inevitably, Michael would pull a long, thin bone out of his mouth while eating his whitefish salad and my mother or grandmother would shriek: “Michael! Be careful. Check for bones.”
And if there were too many bones for safe consumption, of course they would send it back. Whitefish salad can be dangerous like that. In fact, I’d say more often than not you’ll find bones in a whitefish salad sandwich. Though an inconvenience, it’s also a reminder of white fish salad’s humble origins as Jewish peasant food. Presumably, the fish was smoked first for preservation purposes and then, when it was time to serve, fancified with sour cream and onion and egg to transform something meant for survival into something meant for pleasure. Isn’t that true of all of the world’s great food? Ingredients meant for survival transformed into something to induce pleasure?
The pleasure induced by whitefish salad is serious enough that if you’ve never had it, I suggest you do so ASAP. The picture you see above was taken in the window at Murray’s Bagels on 6th Ave. and 13th Street. If you go, order an everything bagel (don’t say toasted, they don’t toast!) with whitefish salad, tomato and onion. Get an obligatory Tropicana orange juice to wash it down–the acid from the OJ cuts the fat of the whitefish–and sit in the window. Look at your reflection, and as you bite in watch as you transform into a hassidic rabbi like that scene in “Annie Hall” when Alvy visits Annie’s WASPy family.
Nothing makes you Jewier than Whitefish. Or happier. Give it a try.