Russ and Daughters Press
The Amateur Gourmet: The Science of Fressing
August 28, 2008
The Amateur Gourmet
When Adam asked me to guest blog for him, his only mandate was to “write about something that excites you,” so, naturally, my thoughts turned to lox. I recently attended a seminar at New York’s Astor Center at which the Don Corleone of smoked salmon, Mark Russ Federman, broke down all the possible science in the world of Jewish sushi. Federman is the owner and third-generation “Russ” of New York’s fabled Russ & Daughters, a mecca for fressers known far and wide.
Russ & Daughters is the last in a dying breed of Lower East Side “appetizing” stores. As Jews separate their dairy from their meat, a delicatessen serves pastrami, but an appetizing store sells dairy, and everything that one eats alongside dairy, such as smoked fish (Somehow kosher fish isn’t considered meat to these meshuganah Hebrews). As any New York foodie can tell you, a visit to Russ & Daughters is like boarding a time & space transporter to a different era, where hand-carved quality and small quantities are doled out by people who have been there forever, and their fathers served your father, and your Aunt Bessie still doesn’t understand why his brother Herman doesn’t have a respectable job at age 40, etc, etc, since 1914. But more important than its history is Russ & Daughters’ present – they might have the best food, and the best interior design, of any store in America.
For a little store barely big enough, in Mark Federman’s words, “to hold all the Mrs. Goldbergs,” the breadth of their selection is mind-boggling. Forget the twelve different kinds of smoked salmon, and the seven different herring varieties, and the bagel pudding, and the dried prunes, and the little-known best coffee and muffins in the city (I swear something’s in the water there to make the muffins so oily and insane). Savor instead the bizarre extra touches, like the gummy bears and the Swedish fish sold by the pound next to the crème fraiche.
Okay, wait, don’t forget the smoked salmon – that’s why we’re here. Being a lifelong New Yorker, I have eaten lox forever, but never gave it much thought. Now that I’ve gotten all mixed up in this food game with The Amateur Gourmet (I am his producer & director on the Food Network’s FN Dish show) I’ve started to think more about and examine more deeply the food I eat. When I heard that Don Federman was breaking down the science of lox at Astor Center, I knew I had to be there. For a Russ & Daughters-worshipping wack job like myself, it was like the Pope opening up the floor for a free kibbitz session on Catholicism.
Federman laid out before us eight different varieties of lox, with some water, cream cheese, and brown bread (the old school accompaniment to lox, before the upstart bagel caught fire).
As you might imagine, I had the night of my life. Federman is a natural raconteur and regaled the crowd with tales of his whole fishy life. I took tons of notes. I wanted to remember everything, know everything. I was like a Star Wars geek during Hans Solo happy hour. Then, of course, Adam asks me to blog for him and I can’t find my notes anywhere. Threw them away. Who knows? Such things happen. So I decided not to let my own stupidity defeat me and came up with a strong course of action – I would recreate the Russ & Daughters Smoked Salmon Taste Test in my own home. I went to Mecca, bought a little nosh of each of the eight different lox that Mark Federman served at the seminar, and recreated the tasting plate for myself and my wife Kelly at home. I also deftly utilized a Jewish trait called chutzpah by calling Mark Russ Federman and asking him to kindly re-explain everything he had earlier explained to a paying crowd for bubkas. Like a true Mensch, Mark was incredibly kind with his time. Below are mine and Kelly’s evaluations of each of the eight different kinds of lox, followed by Mark’s reaction to our reactions (is this meta-loxing or what?).
Photo Key: #1-4 is the top row, starting at the top left. # 5-8 is the bottom row, starting at the bottom left.
1. WESTERN WILD SALMON, also known as Alaskan Chinook
Our take: Mild, buttery, very smooth, a little bland. Lox for someone who doesn’t like lox too much.
Mark’s take: This is the only “wild” smoked salmon still around. It has a stronger taste and is leaner than farm-bred salmons (all others) because the fish gets more exercise. “If you like this, buy it now because wild fish are disappearing.”
Our take: a little more bite than the Western, a little more salt, a thicker mouth feel, more oily, a melt in your mouth sensation. Yummy.
Mark’s Take: This is classic “Nova” lox. Nine times out of ten, Gaspe is what you get when you ask for Nova and cream cheese on a bagel. Back before refrigeration became mainstream, Jews ate lots and lots of herring, and a little salt-cured salmon. 900 pound casks of Pacific salmon were put into salt brine and shipped across country to the Lower East Side. That was lox, pre-1920; the saltiest thing you’ve ever had in your life. Then two events blew up the spot: refrigeration became mainstream, and Atlantic salmon from Nova Scotia “came on the scene.” Because refrigeration could keep fish fresh longer, this new Atlantic salmon from the Gaspe peninsula didn’t have to be heavily, heavily salt cured like the old stuff. In fact, you could cure it in those old smoke houses down the block that the Germans built for herring. It had a milder salt taste, a milder smoke taste, and all of the sudden Lower East Side Jews started eating a lot of smoked salmon from Nova Scotia. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the lox and bagel you ate this morning. Gaspe.
Our take: This was our favorite of the bunch. Perfect delicious buttery taste, nice little hint of smoke, a burst of salt. Caviar-esque in its explosion of flavor. Who knew Scottish lox was the bomb?
Mark’s Take: Not so fast, son. You can’t say that you like Scottish more than Gaspe, or Gaspe more than Western. It all depends on the exact fish you are eating, which portion of that fish you are eating – does it come from the head (fattier) or the tail (saltier)? -- and if the producer of that exact fish allowed the fish to get fat enough and not eat chemical garbage. “It all becomes aquaculture, farming.”
Our take: a middle-ground lox – medium salt, medium smoke, medium thick. Fine, not great. Kelly disagreed and found it too smoky, too salty, too dry. She wasn’t feeling it.
Mark’s Take: See # 3. Don’t talk to me about country of origin. Show me the specific fish. He’s been in the game for 50 years.
Our take: Gravlox is raw salmon rubbed with dill. Consequently, the dill taste is overpowering, like the guy who never lets you speak. I like Gravlox a little, and think it’s a nice occasional lox, but I can’t for the life of me understand how the Gravlox industry, in America, survives. It doesn’t taste at all Jew-y. It tastes Nordic.
Mark’s take: You are right, Mr. Insight. Gravlox is a Danish invention, with the word Gravlox roughly meaning “from the grave” in Danish. The Danes would apply the dill rub and bury the salmon in the ground to concentrate the flavor. It’s very Scandinavian and has been around there forever. Jews are new to the Gravlox game. When I told Mark I didn’t understand how anyone could eat a lot of Gravlox, he mentioned a sign in his store that syas, in Latin, of taste there is no dispute. “I’ve got people who love Gravlox, and buy a pound a week.” He also went on to tell me the loopy and quasi-useful tip that anyone can make his own Gravlox at home. You rub raw salmon with dill, salt, pepper, sugar and whiskey and weigh it down with gymnasium-type weights and refrigerate it for 24 hours. Voila, home-made Gravlox. Does this Amateur Gourmet guy teach you stuff, or what?
6. KIPPERED SALMON
Our take: Kippered salmon is completely different to everything else in this taste test, as it is a baked fish. Kelly and I were unanimous in our evaluation of it – bleechhh. This stuff is disgusting. Eck. Where’s the water? Gross. Who likes this stuff?
Mark’s take: I like this stuff. I challenge you: make an appointment, come to my store, and let me cut you a piece of kippered salmon, and I’ll put it on the right bread and you’ll love it. Don Federman – you are on. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t share the extreme lox science that Mark dropped on me here: most lox is cold smoked, i.e., brined in salt and placed in a 78-degree room with external smoke blown all around it. But your kippered salmon is a hot smoked item. In fact, it is baked. It gets the same salt brine treatment as lox, but it is then put into a 170-degree oven. Also, and he was piling on at this point, back in the day, ten percent of the Pacific salmon run each year was albino, and therefore unsaleable to people expecting pink-fleshed salmon. So, that albino ten percent was put aside, baked, and called kippered salmon.
7. PASTRAMI LOX
Our take: This was the revelation of the evening. Pastrami lox is normal Nova-style lox fashioned to taste like pastrami, with all the same succulent peppers and spice rubs. And, my god, was this good. It was like a fistful of decadence with crazy dancing flavors. The peppery brine and the buttery salmon combo – amazing. Kelly loved it. So much that she added “This must really be bad for you.”
Mark’s take: Au contraire! Pastrami lox is very healthy. It combines the unhealthy satisfaction of pastrami with all the great Omega-3s of salmon. Mark agreed that pastrami lox is surreally good and also marveled at its lack of popularity, at how it has remained in the novelty-lox ghetto. “It hasn’t been that long on the scene,” he said by way of explanation. I truly desire to speak in this kind of hipster lox argot, but you can’t new-jack front on the Nova patois. Mark has earned it slice by slice since 1958.
8. BELLY LOX
Our take: Importing our sushi knowledge to the task at hand, we were expecting belly lox to be the Toro of lox, the succulent, fatty belly portion of the salmon. Instead we were met by the most unholy, god-awful salt bomb experienced in this lifetime. It was like taking a jar of Morton’s Salt and pouring it upside down into your mouth. Worse. As Kelly pointed out, it tasted saltier than the sea itself because it was more concentrated, more marinated. I found it completely disgusting.
Mark’s take: Welcome to the Old School, grasshopper. This is exactly what “lox” tasted like when my grandfather started selling it from a pushcart in 1914. This is that old immigrant Lower East Side Jew-y taste that comes from lack of refrigeration and leaving something in a 900-pound salt cask for sixth months. Speaking grandiosely, as only he can on the subject, Mark said, I have lived through the transition of lox and appetizing from ghetto immigrant food to gourmet culture. From my grandfather’s pushcart to today, where we ship thousands of pounds of fish through cyberspace every week, I was that transitional generation.
But every day I still walk down the counter and hanker for a slice of salty belly lox. It’s that old, direct taste, from a time when the old Jews came in demanding the head portion of the salmon, with the bones still in, because all the tasty fat accumulated around the head and the bones. Then, bones were tastier. Today, bones are a lawsuit.
In conclusion, would it kill you to try a little lox yourself? And make your own decisions? Just make sure you head to Russ & Daughters, before this last outpost of old school New York is gone forever. And, I am happy to report three pieces of good news on that front. One, Mark’s daughter Niki is taking over the business, the new heir to the old throne. Two, the Federmans own the building, so there’s no landlord to quadruple their rent and erect a Duane Reade. And, lastly, when Mark isn’t sneaking off to the golf course each day, he is supposedly writing a memoir of his 50 years in the lox game. Although not technically possible, I am looking into whether I can pre-order a book from Amazon that has yet to be written.
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