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.