Lox, Whitefish, and Beyond: An Introduction to Appetizing

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

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In my family, you can measure the gravity of an event by the volume of smoked and pickled fish on the table. A casual brunch gets smoked salmon, perhaps some pickled herring. For bar and bat mitzvahs, add whitefish salad and sable. Weddings and funerals? The big guns come out: whole smoked trout and mackerel, salty belly lox, flaky bluefish, even sturgeon and a prized bowl of caviar. All served in excess, in true Jewish fashion, with overflowing baskets of fresh, chewy bagels (everything, sesame, pumpernickel; the plain always last to go), thinly sliced tomato and red onion, cucumber salad, capers, and tubs upon tubs of cream cheese. Smoky, salty, yeasty, tangy, sweet. This is appetizing.

Yes, appetizing. It's a word that means many things to many people. Perhaps it evokes a favorite comfort food, a secret family recipe, or a mouthwatering aroma. But for some of us, appetizing is more than an adjective. For some, appetizing is also a noun.

A Slice of History

Appetizing's most common definition, among adherents and Wikipedia alike, is "food that goes on bagels." Meaning, again, an array of smoked, cured, and pickled fish, spreads, salads, and roe. That's right, you can have appetizing. And yes, before you even start, I know. It's absurd; it makes absolutely no grammatical sense; it's entirely made-up. Which actually makes it the perfect word, since the term itself refers to a relatively new, and novel, cuisine.

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The Lower East Side, early 1900s. [Photograph: Library of Congress]

"Appetizing," explains Niki Russ Federman, fourth generation co-owner of the century-old appetizing store Russ & Daughters, "is a food tradition that many people do not realize is particular to New York; it's one of New York's most unique born and bred food traditions." And in many respects, appetizing is a story as much as it is a cuisine and a craft. It's a narrative of an early 20th century New York, and specifically the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who made it their home.

Many of these immigrants were poor and worked long hours for little pay. "They needed foods that were ready to eat," says Ms. Russ Federman. And so their enclaves—predominantly on the Lower East Side, but also firmly entrenched in pockets of Brooklyn and the Bronx—were populated with storefronts and pushcarts selling the familiar foods of the old country, especially those items with longer shelf-lives. Cured and smoked meats and fish were thus central to this diet but, because of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), they took shape in two closely related but ultimately distinct environments: the delicatessen and the appetizing store.

Today, it's not uncommon to find cheese in your deli sandwich or chopped liver at an appetizing store. But these are more recent developments, born largely of assimilation. In addition to prohibiting the consumption of pork, kashrut forbids the mixing of meat and dairy; permissible seafood, considered parve (neither meat nor dairy), is limited to fish with scales. Sharing a production space for meats, fish, and dairy was simply not an option.

"There were no supermarkets then, not in my neighborhood," my grandmother—a Bronx native of Polish descent who, incidentally, did not grow up kosher—explains. "You had a butcher, a baker, a grocer. For your prepared meats—corned beef, and pastrami, and so forth—you went to the delicatessen. And for fish and dairy, you had the appetizing store." The appetizing store was also where you'd pick up other parve foods, like pickles and prepared salads, bagels and bialys, along with caky loaves of babka, sweets like rugelach and halva, and assortments of dried fruits and nuts. As with most Jews of her generation, this is simply the way it was done; what's remarkable is how the tradition has persevered, both in generations-old shops like Russ & Daughters, Barney Greengrass, Zabar's and Murray's Sturgeon Shop, and with newcomers like Shelsky's Of Brooklyn.

When asked what's changed, the answer is remarkably little. "It was important for me, when I started, to keep those traditions," says Peter Shelsky. If anything, remarks Russ Federman, "what has changed is the appreciation, and the emotional resonance...at least once a week in our store, someone breaks into tears because the food brings up a memory for them that is very powerful, whether it reminds them of a loved one or some part of their past." But while appetizing and delicatessen menus have remained largely stable over the last hundred years, the customers—their diversity, their financial circumstances—have certainly evolved. "Appetizing was traditionally food that you brought home," she elaborates, "whether it was for a religious reason, or a family gathering, or Sunday brunch. This wasn't food that was meant to be eaten in public; that's changed."

Sure enough, restaurants throughout New York and across the country sell various iterations of appetizing, from bagels and lox to whitefish salad, pickled herring, and beyond. Here are some of the things to look for (or order online!).

The Salmon Family

Lox

These days, lox has become something of a catch-all term for any sliced, cold-smoked or cured salmon. But if you order lox at a traditional appetizing store, chances are you're in for a surprise, or at least a warning from the staff. "Lox refers to cured salmon, not smoked salmon," explains Shelsky. "It's saltier than salt...if you laid a slice straight on your tongue and let it sit there for a few seconds, it would start to burn." If that sounds unappealing, think again—despite their intense salinity, brine-cured salmon bellies are also fatty and flavorful, a pleasantly jolting complement to a cream cheese-schmeared bagel or bialy (the bagel's thinner, delicious cousin) and, Shelsky notes, "great for hangovers, because they make you drink more water."

If you're looking for a less intense introduction to appetizing, though, look no further than pickled lox. The cured fish is soaked in fresh water baths to lower its salt content and then plunged into a vinegar-based pickling liquid. The result is rich, meaty, tangy, sweet, tart, and refreshing. Served in thick-cut cubes with some onions in a wine or cream sauce, it's one of my favorite snacks.

Gravlax

And we can't forget gravlax, the Scandinavian specialty that's found a second home in appetizing cases citywide. Like lox, it's been cured, but that's where the similarity ends. Gravlax is sweet and profoundly herbal, thanks to a brine of sugar, salt, and dill. It's easy to spot by its green, dill-flecked coating.

Smoked Salmon

Peter Shelsky proudly wields a massive side of smoked salmon.

The smoked salmon that most of us know and love is hardly limited to the Jewish tradition. "As the world has gotten more globalized," notes Russ Federman, "you see a cultural crossover of a lot of foods." Cold-smoked fillets come under a variety of labels—Nova, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, and so forth. These days, the main difference between them boils down to preparation, not provenance. Each variety is typically either cured or dry-brined with a rub, and then rinsed and smoked. But this isn't the same smoking you'd apply to your ribs—temperatures hover anywhere from 70 to 90°F, so the salmon fillets are essentially infused with room-temperature smoke for anywhere from six to twelve hours. The technique yields a delicate fish with a sashimi-like texture and a light campfire aroma. Of course, most Jewish preparations end up on a bagel with cream cheese, but smoked salmon performs beautifully with goat cheese or crème fraîche, folded into omelets and quiches, and yes, even in this potato salad.

Of course, quality of the fish can differ and the best appetizing is sliced by hand, to order—done properly, it's a far cry from the smoked salmon on your supermarket shelf. "What tends to make it into packages is a lesser-quality product that has to move," warns Russ Federman. "And then it's sliced by a machine. The thinness that you can get from a hand-slice, you can't get from a machine. Those blades also create a lot heat and friction, which has a tendency to give the fish a granular, shredded quality."

Kippered Salmon

To call kippered salmon a variety of smoked salmon would be an accurate, if utterly misleading, statement. Unlike the slick, jewel-toned slices of cold-smoked salmon, kippered salmon has been hot-smoked. Deeply smoky and incredibly moist, the meat is far flakier and can't be thin-sliced; it lends itself well to mayonnaise-based salads or sandwiches, though I personally like it best all by itself.

Herring

"The streets of New York used to be filled with schmaltz [fatty] herring mongers; this is what families ate, and unfortunately it's gotten a bad rap" explains Russ Federman. Lately, though, herring seems to be making a comeback on both coasts, and I couldn't be more proud—small, delightfully fatty, and salty-sweet, herring may just be appetizing's unsung hero.

It's often sold sliced in pickled chunks, doused in a vinegar brine with onions. Some top it with a rich cream sauce; others prefer a tangier wine sauce. Or try it as finger-food, in the German "rollmop" style, wrapped around a filling of onions or cornichons.

There's also the original schmaltz herring to be had, barrel-cured and salt-brined. And for those concerned about sustainability, herring isn't just delicious and inexpensive. Russ Federman points out that herring "is one of the most sustainable fish. It's a wild, plentiful fish and it has the highest level of Omega 3s and the lowest level of mercury. It really is one of the healthiest foods out there." Not quite ready to take the plunge? Give fresh, mild new catch Holland herring a shot during the summer season.

Hot-Smoked Fish

Sturgeon

Lake sturgeon, ready for hand-slicing.

For slicing, there's sturgeon—the same large fish best known for its caviar. "Much in the way that people say they can taste the terroir of a wine, you can really taste the terroir of of this fish," says Shelsky of his supply of lake sturgeon. "It's slightly earthy, but I find it really complex and quite lovely."

Sable

If earthy's just not your thing, consider sable as a topping for your next bagel. The smoked black cod is lightly coated in paprika, which offsets the pale, firm fish with a deep orange-red hue. It's buttery, with a natural sweetness that makes getting the last slice something of a competitive sport in my family.

Whitefish and Beyond

It's hard to beat smoked whitefish, especially in the salad department. (That's right, tuna! I said it!) Because it's a relatively mild fish, it takes on smoke remarkably well. So well, in fact, that I'll admit forkfuls tend to wind up directly in my mouth, instead of spread over a bagel as intended. Whitefish is also sold as a whole, skin-on or filleted fish, and typically served on a platter with other appetizing at large gatherings. Have leftovers? Whitefish is excellent in pasta and tossed salads, or, like smoked salmon, served with eggs.

Smoked bluefish.

If you're looking to expand your repertoire, you can treat smoked bluefish, trout, or even mackerel similarly. These flaky preparations usually come whole or in steak-like slices, and vary in intensity. Those wary of bluefish for its oily, fishy qualities may actually find the balanced flavor of smoked bluefish more to their liking. If you're still skeptical, trout has a sweeter, milder character that gives it widespread appeal. But the real upside of an appetizing store? No need to buy just to give these varieties a try—if you ask with a smile, they'll almost always give you a taste.

You don't have to be a member of my family to pick up the appetizing habit. And you certainly don't need to be Jewish. What you do need is an appreciation of sweet, salty, smoky, meaty things; if that's a sentiment you can muster, then there's a good chance appetizing will become both an adjective and a noun for you, too.