When Chopped Liver Is the Talk of the Wedding

Author and restaurant critic Jay Rayner recalls the power of wedding food in an excerpt from his book, Day of Atonement

Gefilte Fish Terrine

Gefilte Fish Terrine

Traditional gefilte fish recipes call for fish balls poached in stock, but New York City chefs, authors, and brothers Eli and Max Sussman like to bake their gefilte fish in a loaf pan with a water bath. They also add salmon for a richer, fuller flavor. Get the recipe for Gefilte Fish Terrine »Eilon Paz

If one included the mound of chopped herring that greeted the guests as they arrived to celebrate the wedding of Solomon Princeton to Judith Goldman, there were actually four kinds of fish. As they sipped their pre-dinner drinks and nibbled their canapés in the Regency Suite of the Bayswater Garden Hotel hard by Hyde Park not many people noticed the herring. This was because it had been formed in a chicken mould.

‘This is chopped liver?’ Solly said, pointing at the carefully shaped chicken on the silver platter, the colour of old window putty.

‘Ah, no, Mr. Princeton,’ said the elderly caterer, with an earnest bow of the head that revealed his black cupple. ‘It’s chopped herring.’

‘In the shape of a chicken?’

‘At the last moment we found we had mislaid the fish mould.’

‘So you put it in the chicken mould?’

‘What can you do when you have no fish mould?’

‘There is a logic, I suppose.’ Solly scooped a little onto a cracker and tasted it. ‘Almost as good as my own,’ he said. ‘So tell me. What mould did you use for the chopped liver?’

‘Ah, something very special,’ said the caterer, pointing down the table past heaving platters of vol-aux-vents and gherkins and waxy cubes of cheese on sticks. ‘We have just received from my cousin in Tel Aviv a mould that is the likeness of Mrs. Golda Meir. The newest thing.’ Solly stared at the bust, a deep luscious grey, as though it had only recently been manufactured from wet clay. There were the soft round cheeks and the narrow eye slits, and the two deep jowls like a coat hanger upon which was suspended her wide mouth. It was definitely Mrs. Meir. The mother of the nation stared out reproachfully across the ranks of men in their velvet suits with wide lapels and even wider flares and the women in halter-neck dresses. Somebody had already attacked the nose, so that the Israeli Prime Minister appeared to have suffered a great misfortune.

‘We have chopped herring that looks like a chicken and chopped liver that looks like Golda Meir in advanced stages of the clap,’ Solly muttered. ‘Now I know this simcha will go with a swing.’ And then to the caterer: ‘I think perhaps we should put a label before both of them just so guests know what they are.’

The caterer nodded his head and wrung his hands. ‘Very good, Mr. Princeton. Of course, Mr. Princeton.’

The chopped liver became a talking point. In the following months other moulds would be pressed into service at Jewish weddings across London, including one of Moshe Dayan, complete with eye patch. ‘Golda Meir at your wedding,’ said one aunt—said all—with a rapid nudge to Solly’s ribs. ‘Imagine that.’

Then again, everything was a talking point, as was the custom. The guests paraded in for dinner and huddled by tables to point and count. ‘What do we have?’ said one man, who in middle age had spread to fill the space of two. ‘Is it eight to a table. No, ten.’

‘But how many tables, Bernard, how many tables?’ said his wife, golden hair frozen by lacquer. Her eyebrows could be guaranteed not to register surprise whatever the answer, having been encouraged into that shape already with a pencil.

‘I count twelve tables. Twelve of ten. At, what? Ten pounds a head?’

‘Ten pounds a head, Bernard? With three kinds of fish?’

‘Three kinds of fish?’

‘So it says here,’ she waved the menu card at him. ‘Salmon, pike and carp. And stuffed carp, yet.’

‘They stuffed the carp?’

‘That’s what it says.’

Bernard gave a little whistle. ‘Well then £12.50 a head. For stuffed carp.’

‘And the rest. And you forgot the top table. Always, you miss things.’

There were indeed salmon, pike and stuffed carp, with sauce hollandaise, or mayonnaise. There was Galia melon to precede them and a choice of a Roast Surrey capon exotique or Norfolk turkey with mushroom sauce to follow. There were cucumber salad and potato salad and a garniture of vegetables. There were fresh strawberries, fresh fruit platters and homemade pastries, pineapple crush sorbet and petits fours. There was food. This was what was expected of a wedding.

Jay Rayner's Day of Atonement is available from Amazon.com as a Kindle Special. It will be free to download on September 14 and 15 and will cost $3.99 thereafter.