The one thing I always get at Russ and Daughters is the chopped liver, my favorite. The smallest amount of chopped liver you can buy is a quarter pound. It comes in a small plastic cup not much larger than the cups you might get if you were ordering your hot dogs to go, with ketchup and mustard on the side. Chopped liver is a heavy thing.
Russ and Daughters is a trove of fine foods, opened by Eastern European immigrants, catering to the Jewish palate then, and still today. Lately I have been frequenting the shop with some alarming regularity, albeit for what I consider to be professional reasons. In less than a week I am due to speak on a panel at Wesleyan's food event Foodstock about the affinity Jews have for Chinese cuisine. (When I received the offer the first thing I thought was that I have a great affinity for Jewish cuisine, and would that count too?)
In any case, it is a speaking gig for which I am woefully unprepared. (If anyone has thoughts on the topic of Jews and Chinese food, I would be much obliged.) For weeks now my research strategy has been to go to Russ and Daughters as well as Katz's Deli down on Houston Street, the Lower East Side being one of the places you go to in Manhattan for Jewish fare, and waiting for something funny to happen to me.
First I went and got a bagel sandwich, surprised a few years after the fact that Russ and Daughters will toast now your bagel for you. Then I went back another day for their bialys, and another day for their gefilte fish. Next door at Katz's I took it upon myself to order the reuben, the corned beef, and the tongue sandwich so as to fully expose myself to any opportunities for funny and interesting things to fall into my lap.
I realize now that this was not a very productive course of action. (Delicious, yes.) Or maybe you just have to find the humor and the excitement in your life, even it means lowering your standards for what you find humorous or intriguing.
For instance, the guy making my bagel sandwich took about ten minutes to toast a bagel and assemble the sandwich. He waited for the bagel to cool slightly before putting on the cream cheese and the tomatoes and onion. When I told him not too much onion, he pursed his lips and wrinkled his brows and said, "Don't worry, I'm going to make it really nice for you." And he did, and I laughed because it was sort of funny in the moment.
I love that the lox and the bagel sandwiches are wrapped in wax paper that is twice as thick and heavy as regular wax paper. The paper is emblazoned with the Russ and Daughter's logo, a simple one. This is wax paper with personality. It speaks to the care and attention that makes the store such a rarity. Like a kleptomaniac I've been keeping the wax paper I get from the store in my cupboard. I don't know what I'll do with it. Maybe use it as lox-scented gift wrap.
Anyway, back to the liver. I like to eat the chopped liver for breakfast, with rye crackers and a cup of coffee. I'm not exactly sure when most Jews or most people eat their chopped liver, but since I am Chinese I figure I'm not bound by any such cultural norms. Besides, it makes such a terrific breakfast. You get your hit of protein, the onions are oh so sweet, and the rye crackers taste good dipped in coffee.
The chopped liver at Russ and Daughter's is sweeter than most. It gets its sweetness from the onions. Of course all recipes for chopped liver call for sautéed onions to be mixed in with the liver purée, but what distinguishes the onions used at Russ and Daughters is just how very sweet they taste. These are onions that get cooked for a long time, I suspect.
Of course, Russ and Daughters could not give me the exact recipe that they use in-house.
So I asked, "Can you at least confirm that the onions are cooked for more than say, forty minutes, as many outside sources claim?"
No, they could not.
I tried again. "If I wanted to my chopped liver to taste like the chopped liver at Russ and Daughters, then what would I do? Would I want to caramelize the onions?"
A pause. Then a reluctant: "That's what I'd do if I were you."
See what I mean? Very interesting indeed.
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.