For four generations, Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side of Manhattan has purveyed its wares of fish-oriented, traditional Jewish food. And on August 26, 36 people came to a tasting venue on Astor Place to savor the wares of what the London’s Sunday Times once called the “Louvre of Lox.”
The event was “A Taste of Appetizing.” Russ & Daughters’ owner, Mark Russ Federman, aka Herring Maven Emeritus, described “appetizing” as a food genre unto itself. Although Russ & Daughters is “kosher-style” rather than kosher, “appetizing” is the title of the traditional food wares, rooted in dairy foods and fish.
The appetizing genre, Federman pointed out, follows Jews of all ideological stripes from cradle to grave: Smoked fish is served at everything from a bris to a bar mitzvah to a funeral. Perhaps that’s why, for this Ashkenazic Jewish writer, with the very first bite of herring, I suddenly felt the urge to call my mother and apologize to her for all I’ve put her through, and then to discuss with distant relatives why I’m not remarried.
“We are a culture and a people who take our agony and turn it into food and joy,” Federman said to nods of agreement from the group.
Plied with bottomless glasses of Prosecco, the lucky 36 savored Federman’s anecdotes and beautifully assembled plates of artisanal herring, salmon and sable. The Gaspé salmon was particularly awe-inspiring and buttery smooth (at more than $30 per pound, it should be). To my perhaps overly assimilated palate, however, the taste of the pastrami lox seemed vaguely analogous to unscrewing the top of a saltshaker and dumping the contents directly into my mouth.
But appetizing has a staying power that transcends generational boundaries, regardless of sodium content. These foods trigger visceral feelings. Attendee Larry Fuchsman has been a Russ & Daughters customer since the 1970s; while he’s a secular Jew, he said that eating this kind of food is a cornerstone of his identity. “I make a point of it,” he said as the last set of dishes was spirited away. “This is my religious observance.”