Food blogger Bruce Holberg recounts the highlights of a recent talk about lox and other Jewish deli favorites.
On May 13, I had a fabulous gastronomic experience without eating a thing. I was listening to a talk entitled, “How Lox Became Jewish: A History of the American Jewish Deli," sponsored by the Dona Gracia group of Hadassah and delivered by Lance Sussman, the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. The rabbi, a top-notch author, speaker and nosher, made everyone’s mouth water with his description of Jewish deli food of yesterday and today.
I will tell you the tale of the smoked fish in a minute, but first some data about kosher food: According to Rabbi Sussman, kosher shoppers have represented a major marketing opportunity. He claims that 75 percent of the consumers of kosher food are non-Jewish, and 21 percent of Americans spend $10.5 billion on kosher products every year. This in a country that is only 2 percent Jewish!
The rabbi knows his Jewish soul food cold — and hot. His uncle owned a deli in Baltimore called Sussman and Lev, plus I would suspect that the rabbi has had a close encounter or two with great Jewish food. After serving up tasty stories about salt, schmaltz, gefilte fish, chicken soup, cholent, brisket, pastrami, hot dogs and pickles (told you it was mouthwatering), we got into the bagels and lox.
Bagels didn’t start out Jewish. They were invented in Krakow, Poland, in the 1600s, where the boiled and baked breads were food for Lent. Jews liked them and found them very easy to transport, so they spread like crazy with the traveling Jews. In the United States, the recipe was held in secret by the Bagel Bakers Local 338 in New York City, who controlled the recipe and production of bagels from 1907 until the development of the machine-made bagel in the 1960s. The bagel-making apparatus could produce 300 dozen bagels in the same time that two men could produce 125 dozen, and the die was cast. One of the early adopters of the bagel machines was Murray Lender of New Haven, Connecticut, whose frozen bagels can still be found in supermarket aisles to this day.
So now I will serve you the lox. “Lox” is derived from the Yiddish word for salmon, “lacks." Salting and/or smoking the fish were a means of preserving it. Initially, salmon was not the “chosen fish." Starting in medieval times, Jews salted and smoked herring to have food they could travel with. Through the ages, though, as the Diaspora widened and more Jews found themselves far from herring country, they made do with indigenous fish. This was more often than not salmon.
As you may know, there are many kinds of smoked salmon, which, thanks to modern catering and supermarkets, have made it into the idiom for our Sunday morning enjoyment. Nova, or nova lox, is cured with a mild salt brine and then cold-smoked. Lox is prepared the same way, but is saltier and comes only from the fatty belly of the salmon. Gravlax, or Gravad lax, is a Scandinavian method of preparing salmon with a spice mixture that includes dill, sugar, salt and spices such as juniper berries. It is cured, not smoked. Scottish-style smoked salmon (you know — the kind in the tartan-plaid package) is prepared by having the flavorings brushed onto the salmon, rinsing them off and cold-smoking or hot-smoking. Kippered salmon is produced in a similar manner.
According to Rabbi Sussman, the bagel, lox, and cream cheese combo we cherish came together at a deli in New York in the 1920s. I hope that there is some fitting celebration being planned for the centennial of this most sumptuous of sandwiches.