Sometimes, maintaining traditions takes work - and some special tools.

That's why, in the days leading up to Passover, Jeff Vasser is going to be spending hours in his kitchen with his grandmother's pot.

For Vasser, marking the holiday usually involves making his grandmother's gefilte fish recipe - an hours-long task the Linwood man nonetheless approaches with love.

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"When I was growing up, making the gefilte fish was her job - no one else ever made it," said Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority.

But Hessie Sansweet maintained that her generations-old family recipe wasn't the sole reason for the success of her gefilte fish, which are meatloaf-like balls of ground fish and other ingredients.

Much of the responsibility lay in a battered white stock pot her mother had used when preparing the dish.

"That pot goes back to at least my grandmother's mother - Rose Keen," Vasser said.

"My grandmother said the secret to the recipe was always in the pot and the pepper," Vasser said. "When she gave me the recipe she also gave me the pot. She passed it on to me because she felt I was the one who would keep the tradition going. She kind of walked me through the recipe the first couple of times I made it. I feel a responsibility to keep the practice going."

That legacy stretches back generations.

While Vasser got the recipe from his grandmother, he knows she did not originate his family's version of the dish.

Vasser knows the recipe goes back to at least his great-great grandmother, Rebecca Levy, and there is a good chance it might even be older than that.

Hessie Sansweet, was born in Philadelphia but raised in Atlantic City, where she graduated from Atlantic City High School.

By the time Vasser was born, she was living in Margate - the same town where her grandson and his three brothers and sister lived. His parents are Mark Vasser and Marilyn Schwadron.

Sansweet was a fixture in her grandchildren's lives and a frequent visitor to their house. Holidays were spent at Vasser's house, where aunts, uncles and cousins would all converge for Seder meals on the first night of Passover.

"We always had a large crowd, probably 20 people. Other families I'm sure have more, but I remember that it was always a fun gathering," Vasser said.

The meals included lamb and all the other traditional dishes, but no Seder was complete without gefilte fish being served.

"It's not one of the items that goes on the Seder plate, it's not one of the things mentioned the Haggadah, the book you use that tells you the story of Passover. But it is something that Jewish families like to serve and my grandmother liked to make," Vasser said

That tradition continued through much of Vasser's childhood - but as children grew and Sansweet got older, she began to skip the time-consuming task of making the dish.

Vasser, meanwhile, had grown up. During high school, he spent summers working in hotels and restaurants in the area. Finding that he liked the hospitality business, and seeing that casinos were coming to Atlantic City, he studied hotel and restaurant management at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y..

"When I was in school, I found that I liked the food and beverage program, that was the direction I took," Vasser said.

After college, Vasser got a series of jobs working in restaurants, including The Four Seasons in New York City.

"I was a banquet cook for some time. I was on the line for some time, I still enjoy (cooking)," he said. He also worked as a consultant for the food and beverage industry.

With this training, Vasser also got interested in continuing the family gefilte fish recipe. He'd tried buying premade gefilte fish, but found the processed stuff couldn't compare to the dish he'd been raised on. That was when he approached his grandmother and got her recipe - and her pot, which clearly shows its generations of use.

"It certainly looks like its on its last legs. It's certainly seasoned. That's the important part with the pot. Over the years the fish taste and seasoning has been embedded in the pot," he said. "You have to use a pot reserved only for this dish, or else you will have the taste of this in whatever you cook."

Vasser knows how strong that embedded fish taste can be. One year he borrowed a friend's food processor to use when making the gefilte fish. He soon bought his friend a new food processor.

"No matter how much I cleaned it, I couldn't get the fish taste out of the food processor," Vasser said a bit ruefully.

Even with the recipe and the pot, there are no shortcuts when making Hessie Sansweet's famous dish. The first step is obtaining kosher carp, a challenge in itself that used to involve a trip to New York. Vasser recently discovered a dealer in Philadelphia that could supply him with the right fish prepared in the way he wanted it.

Working with a 10-pound fish, Vasser finds he has enough for the Passover Seder, plus enough to pass on to family members who would like to take some home.

But even as he labors on his dish, Vasser knows not everyone in the family will appreciate his efforts. His two sons, Carson, 8, and Zachary 6, "still turn up their noses to french fries, so they haven't acquired the taste yet."

His wife, Angie, came late to her appreciation of the dish. Having been raised Catholic, Angie Vasser had never tasted gefilte fish until dating her future husband.

"He set me up," Angie Vasser recalls."It was my very first Passover Seder. I showed up late for the dinner. Everyone was standing around eating the fish, Jeff said 'Try some.' He gave me a little, bitty piece of matzo with a huge piece of fish."

"After 13 years, I do enjoy it - but I realized the key was a lot of horseradish and a little fish," Angie Vasser said.

Jeff Vasser holds out hope that someday his sons will come to appreciate the fish - and the family tradition.

The boys just started religious school, "so they are starting to get an idea of what this is all about. As soon as one of them shows an interest, they will get the coveted pot."

Until then, Vasser will hold onto it, and continue putting the time in to continue his family's Passover tradition with his grandmother's white stock pot.

"As long as this thing continues to work, it's kind of a connection to my great-great grandmother, so its nice to use," he said.

Contact Steven V. Cronin:


Gefilte Fish


•10 pound whole carp, with head, skin, tail separated for stock and meat filleted and ground

•Sliced onions, enough to cover the bottom of the pan, with brown skins reserved for use

•3 large eggs

•1/4 teaspoon salt

•1 teaspoon or more


•Matzo meal, enough

•to bind the fish

•4 to 5 carrots, sliced


Put head, tail, skin, bones in stock pot. Cover with sliced onions, salt and pepper. Add water, enough to cover ingredients. Slowly boil for 45 minutes. In large mixing bowl add ground fish, eggs, 1/2 cup of water, salt, pepper to taste, and enough matzo meal to hold fish together. Dip hands in water and roll fish balls. Add balls to fish stock. Add more water - enough to cover fish. Also add plenty of salt, pepper, and carrots. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. When you think you've added enough pepper, add more.

One hour into cooking time, take the brown skins from the onions, wash thoroughly and place them over the fish to cover. After two hours, add approximately 1/2 cup of cold water to cover fish. Simmer one more hour uncovered. When completed, remove onion skins and take fish out of stock pot and place on a dish to cool. Strain and save stock for gravy if desired.

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