"We need 12 fishes -- 12 fishes, not 10 fishes."
That's Bezalel Field, 19, calling out another order of gefilte fish at the Knish Shop.
"How much are the fishes?"
"Dollar ninety-five," says Jann Levin, not even breaking stride as she explains the increase to a customer. "Inflation, honey. The bait went up to get 'em."
OK. Everybody knows a gefilte fish is not really a fish, but a type of fish loaf. Still, Levin can't help tossing out a bit of banter. It's her style, and the talk helps keep everyone sane as customers stream in on the first day of Passover to pick up prepared Seder dinners or an item that might be lacking at home.
Passover is big business at the Knish Shop, one of Baltimore's few remaining kosher caterers. It's like Mother's Day for florists, or Christmas for a curio shop at Towson Town Center. Marty Zangwill, owner of this shop in the 500 block of Reisterstown Road, says about half of his business comes from Passover and Yom Kippur. Business is especially good this year.
"Several kosher caterers did not choose to do Passover this year," says Zangwill, who spent most of yesterday with a phone to his ear, taking late orders, assuring customers they would get their missing matzo balls.
He and his crew have spent the last three months preparing for Passover. By the time of the first rush last Friday, they were geared up to serve 20,000 quarts of chicken soup, 12,000 dozen servings of matzo balls, 20,000 gefilte fish -- enough to break all records.
Two 48-foot refrigerator trucks were parked out back, filled with orders. Zangwill, 58, expects the Passover rush will just about empty the trucks.
"You know the story," he says, one eye on the phone and the other on a friend who has stopped by. "Nobody else was around."
Passover, one of the most sacred Jewish holidays, is celebrated for eight days and commemorates the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.
"It's a funny thing about Passover. Many Jews who don't keep kosher during the year will, for some reason, keep kosher during Passover," says Kenny Baum, leaning against the deli counter during a mid-morning lull. "It amazes me."
Baum, 69, opened the Knish Shop in 1970. He sold out a few years ago to Zangwill. He explains the change with a few cracks about getting old, thought not so old he can't get out to the golf links. Still, he comes around the shop. After all, the routine of work can get in your blood, especially when the co-workers become like family. And during Passover, the family needs help. Here's his description of Sunday's crowd:
"You're talking about wall-to-wall people," he says. "I mean, you're talking about -- oh, well. I would venture to guess, I would say, 1,000 people walked in this store."
Plus another 1,000 out back, he says. Hmmm. This is a small shop, maybe 30 feet deep, maybe 18 feet wide, subtract for the counter, the food cases, the tables covered with boxes of Passover cookies, and there's not much room. A thousand people?
"It was unbelieveable. I had 13 people working the counter and they didn't get a break," Zangwill says from his corner office, actually a desk and telephone squeezed into a corner of the back room. "At 2: 30 [Sunday] we closed the store for a half-hour to re-stock. They emptied the counters."
Prepared Seders are not new. What shook Levin, who yesterday bustled about in a summery, black short-pants suit, was the market for carry-out. Levin, 46, describes herself as a Conservative Jew rooted in the tradition handed down by her grandparents.
"My grandparents would be rolling over in their graves right now. My mother and I, we still cook, but a lot of people don't," says the former police detective. "I had a woman, no lie, call up to ask how to pre-heat the oven for brisket."
Yes, the old ways are slipping by. Even yesterday, Levin gave out instructions with the gefilte fish she lifted from a plastic tub she dubbed the aquarium: "Everything can be reheated, but don't nuke it. We can't nuke it." And she offered samples to an inquiring visitor: "Let me get you some herring. You got to try it. It'll help you."
Now, all of this, the crowds, the return customers, wouldn't be possible without good food. That's where the Wheelers, a black Baltimore family, step up to get their due. Between them, the brothers and sisters have about 100 years of service with the Knish Shop. If you've had anything from the shop, chances are a Wheeler made it.
"The way I cook is soul, Jewish-style," says Martha Morton, 43.
The Wheeler imprint started with the matron, Janie Wheeler. She died a couple of years ago, but they still remember her at the Knish Shop. A plaque on the wall commemorates Baltimore magazine naming her knishes Baltimore's Best in 1986. She was the Knish Shop.
"She made sweet potato knishes I don't think nobody else made," says Morton, one of the daughters. "They tasted like sweet potato pie."
Worked her way up