In balmy Southern California this week, the polar vortex is putting a chill on Simon Baitler's Passover meals.
On Monday night, 21 people dined at his Santa Monica house to celebrate the Jewish holiday. Another 10 were scheduled to be there Tuesday evening. To feed them all, Baitler had to get creative because a winter of historically frigid proportions has caused a shortage of whitefish, a key ingredient in the Seder feast's traditional gefilte fish.
Most of the country gets its whitefish from the Great Lakes, which this winter were so thickly caked in ice that they are just now starting to thaw.
The ensuing shortfall has distributors, wholesalers, retailers and customers like Baitler scrambling at a time of year when whitefish is most in demand.
The 71-year-old insurance industry adviser went to Santa Monica Glatt Kosher Market late last month to pick up frozen whitefish-based gefilte packages for Passover, he said, but the available selection was about a quarter of the size of the "overflowing" assortment displayed last year.
He bought eight pounds and then headed to Royal Gourmet Deli, where he'd heard fresh fish was available. He picked up 10 pounds there. His mother-in-law also had to spread her buying across several seafood vendors, even swapping in trout when she couldn't find enough whitefish to make the broth for the gefilte fish.
"It's the most unimportant thing in the world compared to issues like hunger and disease, but I do like to have gefilte fish because it's tradition," Baitler said.
Roughly 90% of the Great Lakes froze over in the bitter temperatures of recent months — an extent last reached in 1979, according to Kevin Crespel, a manager at North Hollywood distributor Universal Seafood.
Even as the ice melts, remaining chunks are thwarting boats and threatening to wreck $150,000 fishing nets.
Crespel is accustomed to getting up to six cases, or roughly 300 pounds, of whitefish a week. Recently, only one case was being shipped a week. Now, there's none.
Universal is offering customers substitute fish with similar consistency, such as Mediterranean white sea bass, Crespel said.
"Everyone always wants whitefish, because it's a standard thing on the menu, and people want it even more with Passover," he said. "But we're not going to see whitefish around for a while."
American consumers have more on their plates than a piscine shortage. A number of other popular foodstuffs appear to be in short supply as the number of American mouths to feed grows.
The 87.7 million head of cattle currently in the U.S. make up the nation's smallest herd since 1951. The limited population, tamped down by extreme weather, has propelled domestic beef prices to an all-time high.
Chipotle said this year in its annual report that the prices for many of its ingredients — especially avocados and meat — "escalated markedly" in 2013 and will likely continue to rise in 2014. The Mexican-style fast casual chain said intense drought conditions were partly to blame.
The price of limes has quadrupled in recent months as weather, disease and drug cartel activity sharply curb lime exports from Mexico. Some 95% of the limes consumed in the U.S. originate in its southern neighbor.
United Airlines said in a statement that it will substitute lemons for limes on some flights until late May, when inventories of the fruit are expected to return to normal. Currently, suppliers of United's largest caterers have access to only 15% to 20% of their usual lime volumes.
But none of this is causing as much angst as the limited supply of whitefish.
In a normal week, Paco Gonzalez orders 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of whitefish from suppliers. Now, the buyer for distributor Santa Monica Seafood considers himself lucky to score 200 to 300 pounds, even though he's paying 35% more for the fish than he did last year.
"This is one of the worst years we've had," he said.
In recent days, the company has received about 40 requests for whitefish from clients, many of them Jewish markets. Around major Jewish holidays, orders for whitefish tend to surge 25%, Gonzalez said.
To accommodate demand, Santa Monica Seafood is prioritizing stores instead of wholesale customers, spreading available fish among accounts, he said.
"We're scrambling to get them something," Gonzalez said. "But we won't be able to fill the orders completely 100%."
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