Chicago whitefish shortage leaves many scrambling as Passover approaches

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CHICAGO — Fish markets typically spend this time of year preparing hundreds of pounds of whitefish for their Jewish customers to mix with onions and carrots for gefilte fish recipes handed down by grandmothers and mothers.

This year, however, Chicago-area fish suppliers are dealing with panicked cooks after a shortage of whitefish has left many scrambling to prepare the traditional, if sometimes dreaded, menu item for Passover, which begins Monday evening.

“Three elderly ladies yesterday, what a commotion this was for the ladies,” said Robert Schuffler, who at age 97 has worked at Robert’s Fish Market on Devon Avenue for more than half a century and owned it for decades. “The amount of people that came in, they want eight whitefish, 10 whitefish. If they’re good customers through the year, we give them two whitefish. … It’s never been like this. Never.”

The shortage comes after ice on the Great Lakes has kept fishermen from sending their boats out for a catch usually available in abundance this time of year, said Mark Holey, a project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This doesn’t happen very often,” Holey said. “The commercial guys can’t get their boats out to catch the volume that they normally catch.”

Although wholesalers have noticed the short supply since January, it became acute this week, as lines of customers began placing orders for whitefish for the Jewish holiday, said John Poulos, operations manager for Issacson & Stein Fish Company in Chicago. Poulos said his company has about 20 percent of the whitefish it usually has as Passover approaches.

In Jewish tradition, gefilte (which translates to “stuffed”) fish is eaten as one of the first courses in observance of Passover. Prepared by grinding various varieties of fish — whitefish, pike and trout are commonly used — and then forming the meat into loaves, the dish is both loved and loathed at Passover tables.

The dish satisfies two of the laws of the Sabbath and holidays, according to Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, an administrator for the Chicago Rabbinical Council. One of those laws requires that people not work on the Sabbath; that includes the work required to pick meat off of fish bones. The other requires people to eat fish as part of their Sabbath meal, Fishbane said.

During the week of Passover, a Jewish family might sit down for a holiday Seder, or dinner, five times in which gefilte fish is served, he said.

For the past three weeks at Hungarian Kosher Foods in Skokie, Ill., owner Ira Kirsche has had a limited quantity of whitefish to offer. The store has been receiving daily shipments of 10 to 30 pounds of the fish instead of 200 to 300 pounds. Kirsche has been pointing customers instead to frozen and jarred gefilte fish varieties, but estimates he’s lost as much as $20,000 in sales of the fresh fish.

“It’s difficult, because you want to satisfy the customers and keep them happy,” Kirsche said. “Some people are good with it and they’re able to go with the flow. … Other people just get all disappointed and walk away.”

At Schafer Fisheries along the Mississippi River, manager Brian Cruse says his crews haven’t had better luck yielding river fish. The plant shut down for more than a month beginning in January due to frozen water, and now has two-thirds fewer frozen gefilte fish loaves than usual, he said.

“Everybody’s been calling us just crying for fish,” he said. “But you can’t produce fish you don’t have or can’t get to.”

Holey, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the whitefish population was likely not hurt by the frozen lakes. Rather, the ice cover’s protection may improve hatching this spring.

Chicago resident Leon Goldwater is hoping conditions improve in the next couple of days. He’s placed an order for whitefish to be picked up Sunday morning, with 29 guests expected for his Passover Seders on Monday and Tuesday, he said.

“I wouldn’t have a holiday without it,” Goldwater said. “It’s part of my tradition.”