On Sunday mornings, New Yorkers can be found lining up in droves to purchase their weekly allotment of smoked salmon. They cluster in front of the fish counter at Russ & Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, or at newcomer Shelsky’s Smoked Fish in Brooklyn, where they pay collective homage to what were once known as “appetizing stores.”
One of the most curiously named of all American food establishments — doesn’t every food store aspire to be “appetizing”? — these purveyors of smoked fish, bagels, bialys, dried fruit and halvah were once thick on the ground in immigrant and second-generation American Jewish neighborhoods. Well into the 1940s, the Lower East Side alone boasted an estimated 20 to 30 of them. Today, only Russ & Daughters, on East Houston Street, remains. The same can be said of other flourishing middle-class, urban Jewish neighborhoods: A handful of appetizing stores continue to exist; years ago, they were as plentiful as fish in the sea.
A New York institution since the early 1900s, Russ & Daughters is the subject of a new book, eponymously titled “Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House That Herring Built.” Affectionately written by the store’s longtime proprietor, Mark Russ Federman, son of one of the original daughters, it tells of demanding customers, changing business practices and America’s growing affection for bagels and lox. “Our products,” Federman writes proudly, “have become mainstream. The once humble herring is now haute cuisine. And who doesn’t like bagels and lox?”
The Americanization of bagels and lox lies at the very heart of Federman’s story. Initially, establishments like Russ & Daughters were just a step up from the humble pushcart, a modest store where “mouthwatering (“appetizing”) prepared food was sold” to an immigrant clientele with a hunger for traditional, Eastern European foodstuffs such as herring. By the early 20th century, the appetizing store, taking advantage of America’s bounty, expanded its repertoire to include lox and other forms of smoked salmon, which, back then, were equally salty, easily obtainable and, above all, inexpensive.
Yes, you’ve read that right. Much as we’re inclined to view the appetizing store that stocked these piscine goodies as a transplanted, Eastern European phenomenon — the dairy counterpart of the delicatessen and its smoked meats — it was not.
Immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe first encountered lox and kindred varieties of smoked salmon — among them, Eastern smoked salmon and Scottish smoked salmon — in this country, not back home. Near as I can tell, there were no appetizing stores in the Old World. On the contrary. The appetizing store, categorically declared one Adam Gostony, a student of the eating habits of New Yorkers, as he assembled material in the late 1930s for a Works Progress Administration-sponsored project called “Feeding the City,” was an “outgrowth of New York City’s special trading inventions and creations.” The eagle-eyed and hungry reporter went on to add that “although people of every nationality patronize the retail appetizing stores, the Jewish people are by far the greatest customers. This may be attributed to their peculiar love for highly seasoned foods.”
And yet, for all its popularity, the products of the appetizing store have not inspired the encomia more commonly found among devotees of the delicatessen. When, in 1946, Commentary published an article by Ruth Glazer about the deli, it received a flood of enthusiastic, full-throttled responses. “No article yet printed in Commentary has elicited as many comments, oral and written” as Glazer’s piece, the magazine’s editor noted. The deli “seems to strike a responsive chord in the — shall we say — hearts of so many.”
Affinity for delicatessen has resurfaced among a contemporary generation of young food mavens who cure their own pastrami and brine their own pickles. The appetizing store has had no such luck — with one exception: Shelsky’s Smoked Fish, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. “Appetizing [is] such a huge part of New York’s fabric, yet there was nowhere in Brooklyn to get it besides Fairway,” explains the shop’s 30-something proprietor, Peter Shelsky, a classically trained chef, of his decision to “marry tradition to the new Brooklyn lifestyle.” Besides, Shelsky is quick to add, he was tired of “trekking to Russ & Daughters in Manhattan.”
Places like Shelsky’s and Russ & Daughters are no longer the rule. Most fans of this culinary “tradition” are most likely to find its products on the supermarket shelf or the restaurant menu than in a small Jewish specialty shop. Smoked salmon is now everywhere, sourced and artisanal and all dressed up in a snazzy vacuum pack. The appeal of this smoked fish has become so widespread, in fact, that Ron Rosenbaum recently took to the pages of The New Republic to rue what he calls its “ethnic deracination” and its corresponding “gentrification.” By his lights, smoked salmon has assumed a brand-new identity — more to the manor born, so to speak, than true to its humble immigrant roots.
Even so, those consumers who prefer to be reminded of the original context from which bagels and lox first emerged can always venture forth to East Houston Street, where, as the Russ & Daughters book amply records, standing in line at the fish counter continues to be a singular experience.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at The George Washington University as well as the director of its Program in Judaic Studies, is also a longtime columnist for the Forward.