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An Appreciation of Lox

bagel with nova lox

Homemade bagel with nova from a local Los Angeles smoked fish company


For its annual Mother’s Day brunch, the Men’s Club at our synagogue always serves a surprisingly lavish spread with the woiks–lox, bagels, fruit salad, eggs and mimosas. Although I’m not a huge fan of big and slightly-kitschy gatherings featuring big and slightly-kitschy piano acts, I really deserved someone else making me a lox-and-eggs Sunday brunch right about then. But at the last minute I had to miss it in order to hock my kid about her last oversized ridiculous semester projects for 8th grade (due the next day, naturally). Better mothers complained to the principal, who just smiled nicely but did nothing useful. I just figured we’d get through it all so my daughter never had to be an 8th grader again. It worked–salutatorian, even–so, moving on but not required to give a speech: win/win.

But the lost lox! and the not having to cook or do dishes for Mother’s Day! Then I agreed to chaperone a school science camping trip the last week before graduation and  ended up with sand, grime, KP duty, outdoor showers, iffy Boy Scout Camp-style food, and not just one but 32 whole teenagers preoccupied with their hair and late to class.

So now that it’s all over I’m in serious need of payback.

My local Armenian greengrocer has locally-smoked nova lox (they have sable, too–I was tempted) and I had a bowl of dough in the fridge just sitting there waiting to be used up–so I made a few impromptu bagels the last Sunday morning of the school year, as soon as I’d gotten all the sand back out of everything and my kid was done with classes for the year. The bagels weren’t quite as dense as they ought to be because I used my standard pizza/pita/calzone dough instead of the genuine classic, but they did well enough because the dough was several days old, cold-proofed and straight from the fridge, and I boiled them before baking. And there was lox. Throw in a few once-over-medium eggs and some shmear and some fruit and hot coffee and you’ve got the ideal late-spring/early-summer breakfast, even if you have to make it yourself.

Now I know lox is a high-salt item–even the Nova. I anticipate it not for the salt, which I always think we could do with a little less of, but because it’s lox. A delicacy. Something to enjoy on the rare occasion when you get to celebrate. Something to treat with respect.

I’m not going to apologize for enjoying it, either. In the modern world of food publishing, people are forgetting how to do that. Even Jews. Maybe especially Jews, some of whom act as though our traditional deli and “appetizing” (bagels, cream cheese and smoked fish of all kinds) is suddenly something to shove under a rug or apologize for liking on the grounds that it’s not organic or locally sourced or Whole Foods or food-mag-trendy enough, and because it doesn’t include bacon or pancetta. Or kale.

The idea that enjoying lox simply because it’s lox isn’t cool enough anymore has gained a lot of traction in the past few years of foodieism. A couple of years ago, Martha Rose Shulman committed a serious travesty in the New York Times with “Lavash Pizza with Smoked Salmon” (she didn’t even call it lox). Toasted lavash is perfectly good for other things, but not for lox. Too fragile, and frankly too flavorless. I mean, why not rice cakes, as long as you’re being tasteless? But it wasn’t just the bread choice.

Somehow Shulman had abandoned the Joy of Lox. Shulman actually called her lox on lavash “a great way to work more salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, into your diet.” I have to ask, are most of us really having that much trouble “working in” more salmon? More to the point, does any lox fanatic really want to be thinking about fatty acids of any kind while eating it?

But at least she wasn’t agonizing over it as too Jewish. Mark Bittman pulled this inexplicable self-flagellation-in-print a few weeks ago in the New York Times, apologizing publicly for eating lox and bagels on a Sunday morning. In New York, yet. (Maybe it’s because he moved to Connecticut?) He’s kvetching about skipping his morning run, his usually-so-virtuous-but-betrayed-just-this-once-by-shameful-genetic-temptation stance on (gasp) farm-raised salmon, his devouring of shmear, which he says is too bland for the calories to like officially. He even had the nerve to blame his decision to eat it all on a sudden mental breakdown. And then he went further and called bagels and lox “comfort food.” As though it were in the same low-grade category as mac and cheese or mashed potatoes from a box.

Vey ist mir! I mean, come on. I’m pretty sure Woody Allen still eats lox without apologizing for it.

Bittman should be apologizing for being ashamed of enjoying lox (all the while glupping it). Along with apologizing for promoting pancetta and guanciale while professing a greener and more affordable diet. And for forgetting to add garlic to his recipes. That’s almost worse than deprecating lox.

More recently, Melissa Clark met with one of the scions of Russ & Daughters, which by now you’d think was the only serious lox and whitefish emporium left–it’s the subject of a documentary I just missed at the last LA Jewish film festival. The two laid out a spread for at least thirty or forty very lucky people, by my standards, but I think they were doing it mostly for a few family and friends–maybe 10-15 people–and posing it all on the table for the camera. It was beautiful but way too much. At least, though, she was both thrilled and nostalgic, the right way to be when faced with a complete beauty pageant of smoked fish.

Altogether, I could only think Shulman, Bittman and Clark all grew up in big cities with too much lox around. Because when I was a kid in the small-town South, we could only get lox twice a year when one or another set of grandparents came down from New York.

Other people’s grandparents bring toys. Ours brought pastrami, corned beef, half-sour kosher dills, pickled green tomatoes, real bagels, serious breads you just couldn’t get down South, and lox. All of them were special, not just to us but to our grandparents–real deli was part nostalgia, part roots, part pride, part simply great eats.

Pastrami and corned beef to go with the pickles and the tough, chewy pumpernickel and rye with the union label pasted on the end (you were supposed to fight for it)–these were the working people’s foods of their youth on the Lower East Side and the Bronx,  and they still loved them. And so did we.

My mother’s parents, born in the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine, came to America as children and, thank G-d [only instance of poverty being worthwhile], couldn’t afford to go back when their parents got homesick.

Fast forward to the ’70s: My Grandma Thel, short, plump but ladylike, coiffed, and wearing those pale oxford pumps I used to think of as librarian shoes, would step off the little regional plane in Charlottesville loaded down with huge grocery bags full of chewy, crackle-crusted bagels, Jewish kornbroyt or “corn bread” (a heavy European wholegrain sourdough; no actual cornmeal except what’s dusted on the baking sheets to keep the loaves from sticking), rye bread laced with bitter caraway seeds, sometimes a babka, and always, a huge half-wheel of her own light chocolate-flecked sponge cake (for which I’ve inherited the recipe but haven’t tried it yet–will post when I get it right). I hope the other passengers were smart enough to be jealous. The aromas alone should have clued them in. Grandpa Abe, of vishniak fame, was a lucky man.

On the drive home from the airport, Grandma Thel would tell me and my sister how she just managed to argue another customer at Andell’s or Goodman’s out of the last loaf of kornbroyt with seeds because she was bringing it down to her very special grandchildren so we would grow up knowing the real thing, and that the other lady finally caved in and agreed: Our Education Was More Vital to Jews Everywhere ™ than her own weekend brunch (and you probably thought Jerry Seinfeld invented that fight. His grandma was probably the lady who lost out).

Underneath my grandmother’s ladylike demeanor and the affection she had for us, there was always a triumphant gleam in her eye–she’d come out with the prize in hand. Bargaining was in the blood, and she’d clearly enjoyed the conquest–another unspoken lesson. Sharp cookie.

My father’s parents, born and raised in the Bronx, went from jobless in the Great Depression to the self-made owners and officers of my great-grandfather’s little tailoring business, which they built up until in the 1950s they converted it into a thriving double-knit polyester factory (the truth can now be told). Although it eventually made them fairly wealthy, they never really shook their Depression roots or took on today’s CEO kinds of pretentions. Instead, they worked daily at the factory–with their brothers and sisters and their spouses–through retirement age. All of them still did business and ate unglamorous brown bag tuna sandwich lunches at a long wooden worktable at the factory, out in the open a few feet away from the cutting floor. But when they splurged on deli on the weekends, they wanted to enjoy every inch of it.

They could have afforded snootier food if they’d felt like it, but their choice of “choice” leaned toward lox, and even so they saved it for an occasion. Luckily that included coming down to visit us. Back in the early ’70s, lox, or “pink gold” as Grandpa Jack referred to the platter he’d just laid out on our kitchen table when I was 9 or 10, was getting up to a shocking $16 a pound  (to which my dad quipped, “Well, then I’m so glad I can offer you some!”). It was fabulous, the stuff of an entire year’s dreams.

Of course it was full of salt. Not that everything else they brought wasn’t, but lox clearly packed it in. There was no debate over the health value of sodium–everyone knew perfectly well that salt had done in one or another great-aunt’s ankles and given some friend’s husband a coronary. They didn’t need big multinational studies to tell them something so obvious.

So my grandparents spent breakfasts at our house arguing the relative merits of the robustly over-the-top regular vs. Nova, which was the more delicate and sophisticated and (slightly) less salty lox. You could hear the difference even if they never said anything but the names.

If you were going to eat lox, they believed, you should eat it like the treasure it was, sparingly, in company with the people you loved, and with really good bread that could stand up to it. A real bagel, or if you can’t get the real boiled-and-baked bagels where you are, a slice of kornbroyt or wholegrain sourdough or rye, tough, crusty and toasted, is robust enough for a slice of lox, but toasted lavash? It’ll shatter, and you’ll end up with a flap of lox hanging unattractively out of your mouth–or worse, double-somersaulting onto your lap (or worst yet, as my grandfather phrased it so embarrassingly, your “balcone”). And your younger sister will laugh at you. If you doubt me, just think of the last time you attempted lox on matzah.

And also obviously, you should eat it with other, healthier food to balance it. My Grandma Bea, always on trend, insisted on grapefruit. Grapefruit tastes good, it’s fresh, it’s got potassium as well as vitamins C and E, and it’s a restaurant-quality accompaniment (or was, back then). It lets you know you’re eating brunch, not scarfing breakfast on the run, so take your time, schmooze, kibbitz, and enjoy. You’re the king. (At least until it’s time to do the dishes.)

There was an added educational benefit to my grandmother’s obsession with citrus, though we didn’t think so at the time: my sister and I learned to wield a grapefruit knife from an early age, and more importantly we learned to dodge the juice as it sprayed out towards our eyes like pink cobra venom. Nothing like cutting grapefruit at a young age to develop the defensive reflexes you need in later life and to laugh in the face of TV-chef displays of “knife skills.”

(Dicing an onion? again? On national TV? Big deal. Get down here and section a grapefruit, Messrs. Voltaggio–that’s right, half a grapefruit APIECE. No, the coffee hasn’t finished brewing yet. And don’t dawdle, because the bagels are almost toasted already. Then we’ll see if you guys can walk the walk…)

Lox is still about $16-20 a pound, unless you live near a good big-city kosher supermarket, but these days $16 will buy you maybe a movie pass and a latte. Is this a good thing, if you no longer approach lox with appreciation for a rarity and gobble down two or three times as much as you would have when you had to wait for your grandparents to bring it? In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “I think not.

So, nu, I’ve decided to reinvigorate my grandparents’ lox lessons with a few extras they wouldn’t have thought necessary to spell out, but then again they didn’t have to read Shulman’s or Bittman’s work on the subject. The whole idea is to eat just enough but really, really pay attention so you feel you’ve indulged.

How zen, you sneer. How true, I reply in a suspiciously serene and enlightened manner. Unfortunately, that wispily self-righteous California-style lotus position is more painful and awkward than it looks in the diagrams (so much for the holistic schtick), and not conducive to keeping the lox off the balcone.

The Way of Lox

  1. Don’t apologize for liking lox OR for serving it. Eat it with pride, not with a side of Whole-ier than thou hedging.
  2. Don’t mince it to death unless there really isn’t enough to go around.
  3. If you do have to mince it, don’t stir it into “diet” or “fat-free” cream cheese that tastes like salted stale cornstarch. Even the “whipped” version of that is just awful. Fat-free or 2% Greek yogurt that’s milk-and-cultures-only is a much better tasting low-cal substitute.
  4. Similarly, don’t gob on the cream cheese. If you’ve got lox, why hide it?
  5. Don’t serve it on lavash, crackers, stale flavorless American white bread, frozen gummy whitebread “bagels”, day-old skimpy bandaid-sized slices of German-style dried-out pumpernickel or anything else less than robust. Rice cakes are right out! Don’t serve it on matzah outside of Passover, and even then, maybe just wait until Pesach’s over.
  6. Eat it in nice thin slices, not too little, not too much. Save some for later. Trim ankles are still preferable to puffy ones.
  7. Don’t eat anything else salty with it–you want the lox to count the most. Capers are stupid and roll off the surface just as you’re getting the whole thing to chin level.
  8. No avocado. 8b. No sprouts. 8c. That goes double in California. 8d. If you’re a Southern loxist, you already know that neither mayo nor pimiento cheese are acceptable.
  9. Eat your lox as part of a proper meal, together with something unsalted and fresh on the side–preferably an orange or half a grapefruit, or a good-sized and nicely ripe tomato.
  10. And for g-d’s sake don’t cook it (even in a lox omelet). Instead, add the lox to the platter after the eggs are cooked–it’s more sybaritic. Especially with sunnyside ups.
  11. If, on the not-very-believable chance that you actually have too much lox (you should be so lucky), or you got such a deal you couldn’t resist buying big, you can divide the extra up and freeze it flat with the air squeezed out in ziplock bags for next time you need a lox fix. It will thaw nicely and its texture won’t be ruined (probably because of the salt content).
  12. (or maybe “9b”–that’s corollary, not coronary): If you are serving lox as an appetizer of some sort, surprise everyone by wrapping it around spears of canteloupe or the like–just not at breakfast. A foodie friend of mine did this for one of her legendary seders, and she was shocked when I told her the goyische version with Parma ham was already a classic. She’d never even heard of it and had just woken up that morning with the idea of lox and canteloupe in her head. I told her she should stop reading cookbooks at bedtime and start reading something a little more risqué. (I’ve decided I’m in training to be Sylvia, the Nicole Hollander cartoon with the chainsaw tongue. More fun than my real job as Mother of the Year.)
  13. Whatever you do, don’t get distracted in any way from tasting your lox by juggling lavash shards and risk having your favorite and only younger sister laugh at you. Even if she has to call long-distance from New Yawk to do it. Because she will.
  14. Again: NEVER apologize. I know I already said that at the beginning, but I thought I’d better hock you again. Just in case.
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