What Gefilte Fish Has In Common With McDonald's Filet-O-Fish

Other than having the word "fish" in both their names, there isn't really much that the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich would appear to have in common with gefilte fish. Not at first glance, certainly. After all, one is fried and served hot on a bun with a half-slice of cheese. The other is poached and served cold on a plate with horseradish and aspic. One is eaten with the hands, the other with utensils. One is a midnight craving and pop-culture icon. The other, some might say, could benefit from a bit of an image upgrade, perhaps hiring a new publicist — one who is motivated to give gefilte fish some much-needed visibility and a forum in which to address its detractors' claims (via Salon.com). 

Nevertheless, the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich does have one very important thing in common with the small beige fish cakes that are ubiquitous across American Jewish tables during Shabbat and Passover, among other festive holidays. And, no, it's not that they're both made of fish. Nor is that they're both good sources of protein and carbohydrates and make for a satisfying and easy meal or snack. To get to what the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish and gefilte fish really have in common, we need to look back at the origin stories. 

Both McDonald's Filet-O-Fish and gefilte fish were inspired by Lent

Gefilte fish may have been originally bred by Catholic housewives in medieval Europe as a way of addressing an age-old quandary faced by many Catholics on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Fridays during Lent — all of which are days on which Catholic doctrine requires abstention from meat. This practice, we imagine, inspired the question: What can we eat that's good?

The answer came in the form of fish cakes made from ground whitefish and pike, seasoned, poached, and then stuffed inside a fish carcass. The first written recipe for "gefuelten hechden" (which is German for stuffed pike) dates back 700 years, per My Jewish Learning, and it went over well. So well, in fact, that Jewish women borrowed or reverse-engineered the recipe and it became a default on Shabbat tables because it could be made in advance and required no cooking or reheating prior to serving.

Back in 1962, the Filet-O-Fish sandwich was the brainchild of a McDonald's franchisee whose store was located in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood (per McDonald's). The franchisee, Lou Groen, couldn't help but notice how much business decreased on Fridays, especially during Lent. And so, he came up with the idea of developing a fish sandwich that would be so good that it would draw Catholics back in with an item that wouldn't harm them from a spiritual perspective. Today, McDonald's says that 25% of all Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are sold during the Lenten Season.