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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.