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A Lox on Your House

How Smoked Salmon Sold Its Soul and Lost Its Flavor

Daniel Krieger

Have you been following the evolution of smoked salmon snobbery? It's a fascinating story. First about ethnic deracination and then, following that, foodie fetishism that transcends ethnicity for some imagined posh/poshlost realm of anglophile purity. Some realm that rivals wine snobbery. It's become the Downton Abbey of smoked fish.

In doing so, in its rise from humble "lox", something strange has happened. Unlike wine, which at least one must concede has strong flavors, however ludicrously they are often described, in the new realm of super upscale smoked salmon the less actual taste, the better. Indeed it has taken us into a metaphysical realm in which the whole notion of “taste” is interrogated (as the postmodernists like to say) by its absence, which then becomes (as the postmodernists like to say) a kind of presence. The taste of “tastelessness.” The flavor equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping. 1

There is a phrase some may be unfamiliar with (since its day has largely passed): "Think Yiddish, dress British", which was the unspoken watchword of the academics and critics of the Trilling generation who wished to downplay their ethnic origin or appearance. In case you did miss the Yiddish/British period of smoked salmon getnrification, it began with the humble Jewish deli lox, or “belly lox” as it was once called (like it came from someplace else?). It could be found in Jewish “appetizing stores” or smoked fish emporia and it was markedly ethnic and down-to-earth, if not down-market, glowing neon orange in refrigerated cases and tasting crazy salty.

Back then humble deli belly lox was the butt of misogynistic Woody Allen-type jokes. Of a woman said to be relatively unanimated in bed: "She lay there like a lox."

But then (was it sometime in the mid-eighties?) smoked salmon un-loxed itself from the ethnic food ghetto and  graduated from the deli belly to “nova”, or “novi” as the Old School waiters called it at the Second Avenue Deli (now an ever-beckoning block from me). Dressed British. Unsalty with a gentler (genteel? gentile?) more subtle flavor. Still there’s a difference between subtle and nonexistent, right? And nova at least came without pretensions, even if it didn't always come from Nova Scotia.

But then, alas, as we all know, came the tragic invention of brunch and the salmon snobbery derby was on. I don’t think this was an accident; I believe that the faux-civility one-upsmanship of brunch encouraged a parallel race to deracinate lox.

Nova soon took on airs and became "sourced" and "artisanal." Smoked salmon made the great leap backward from North America, across the ocean. Talk about salmon swimming upstream, our nova leapt back over the Atlantic to source itself as Norway salmon, "wild Irish salmon," even antipodal New Zealand salmon. The kind of thing one boasts of at brunch, like vintages of Bordeaux. Often vacuum-sealed like it was plutonium, or flown over in the first class cabin (fact checker please don’t check this), frozen or packed in dry ice and guarded by Navy Seals so it could be sliced “fresh”. (Okay I made that up about the Navy Seals. Just thinking about the movie rights.)

And then—don’t worry, foodies, I haven’t forgotten—in the hierarchy of gentrified smoked salmon there is the Brooks Brothers of smoked salmon, the ultimate in gentrification: Scottish salmon. Not any Scottish salmon, of course. Like Harris tweed “heather lovat” wool is not just any worsted. My head is still spinning from trying to keep straight the salmon snob distinctions between Scottish Smoked Scottish salmon, Smoked Scottish salmon (could be smoked in Uzbekistan for all you know), salmon “smoked in Scotland” (flown in from Uzbekistan for the special Hebridien finishing touch). And the shun-like-a-leper “Scottish style salmon” which fools nobody. Hide the label when you bring it to brunch.

And finally we come to what might be the J. Press to the Brooks Brothers of salmon gentrification. The ne plus ultra for hard-core types, the H. Forman “London cure” smoked salmon. I first encountered H. Forman’s at the new Fairway mega-market that opened a block from me (these places are closing in), which features a velvet rope smoked fish bar. Okay the ropes are not real velvet, but the vibe is. They’re meant to set this apart as the still-beating Upper West Side heart of the now regionally expanding Fairway chain.

A word about Fairway. Once it was known as the crazed Jewish madhouse rival to more sedate Zabar’s and apparently if you lived on the Upper West Side (I never did), you were expected to have as forceful an opinion about the superiority of one or the other, the way they used to argue about the Schactmaites and the Eastmanites and other Marxist splinter groups in the Partisan Review.

I never could understand the narcissism of small differences involved in the Zabars /Fairway wars and anyway would refuse to eat smoked fish at any place else on the UWS but that ramshackle palace of pleasure, Barney Greengrass, the legendary deli-restaurant that Philip Roth readers will recognize as the setting for the final chapter of one of his (my opinion) very best novels, Operation Shylock.

But meanwhile some venture capitalist bought an ownership stake in Fairway and has been extending the brand like mad into the brunch-crazed suburbs as well as Manhattan, opening its “Olive Oil bars” with tasting taps that offer olive oil unfiltered so that it is "not robbed of the soul of its rusticity" ("Officer! My rusticity has been robbed!") and getting into the whole artisanal family-farm-sourced, even vegan, realms. But still offering a vast spectrum of gentrified smoked salmon. Yes, you can get lox, but the action is in the array of the anglophile varieties.

Which brings us to H. Forman, which Fairway’s hand-lettered sign assures us is the peak of smoked salmon pleasure. Here is a literal rendition of the hand-lettered (artisanally sourced?) sign about H. Forman salmon on the Fairway refrigerated salmon display:

It is flown to us weekly from London where Lance Forman personally cures these gorgeous fish.

H. Forman, Lance’s granddad is the pride of England and their East End smokehouse is serious architecture, famous throughout London.

This [the salmon] gets plenty of artisanal, hands-on, eyeballs-on attention which is obvious as this stuff is DELECIOUS.

(Copy editor, please stet the capped “DELECIOUS.” Also please stet this request to stet.)

Where to start? Lance! I'm guessing H. Forman didn’t start out as H. Foxman, despite his East End origins. And the attention to detail—“eyeballs on” (yuck)—does not exactly extend to the spelling. Here is where a little more gentrification might be welcome.

And yet there is something ironically appropriate to the term DELECIOUS. I propose that it be added as a recognized variant in the O.E.D. since it captures the true level of sophistication of foodie fads. And because it offers a way to express a taste that is an absence of taste.

After watching the salmon-slicing surgeons behind the counter scalpel out a quarter pound array of the diaphanous pale orange H. Forman slices, and taking it home with a pumpernickel bagel, I found myself contemplating the veritable beads of oil the glossy slices were dappled with, no, bathed in. If health food foodies are all obsessed with the Omega 3 oil in fish like salmon, this was more like Omega 3000. In fact the near translucent orange slices barely held their fragile jelled solidity as I carefully lofted them onto the bagel.

And, in fact, I felt it was more like eating jellied orange-colored oil than anything else. For taste it substituted—as most of the high-end gentrified salmon did—texture, some velvety fleeting discourse of presence/absence that had no discernible flavor at all, just what the food scientists call “mouth feel.” Of the kind that puts the unc in unctuous, asks the question can pure texture be a taste? Was there any taste?

Well taste is a strong statement. Infinitesimal taste. Before my friend Jim Holt embarked on his decades-long quest to write his brilliant book on the question of nothingness (Why Does The World Exist?) he was noodling around with the idea for a book on nothing’s next-door neighbor, the infinitesimal, a mathematical/metaphysical concept so deeply paradoxical he gave up on it in favor of nothingness.

This kind of salmon is a lesson in discerning the fine line between infinitesimal and nothingness.

Of course, there are those who claim they can discern super-subtle tastes in the orange-colored blandness. My feeling is that it is the concept of salmon they are tasting—a smoked fish of the mind. Something akin in food to the placebo effect in medicine. But more power to their conceptual faculties for conjuring it up.

For a more familiar comparison think of the taste-deprived “orange marmalade” they serve in those tiny impossible-to-unseal plasticene tubs at budget motel chain breakfast buffets (and, shockingly, at some upscale hotels as well). Start there and subtract any residual echo of taste, so that you’re basically just spreading orange colored jelled pectin on your toast. That will give you an idea. I don’t want to knock Fairway when it comes to making available beautifully strong flavors, their artisanal family farm-sourced Italian almond butter: amazing! Even, especially, their Calabrian orange marmalade: a new experience.

But with gentrified smoked salmon it seems to me foodie fashion has accomplished an erasure of all flavor as flavor. Where having taste (in the sense of discernment or anyway the upper-class simulacrum that gestures at it) means enjoying tastelessness (in the smoked salmon belly sense).

It’s a bit depressing, though, the gentrified smoked salmon story. All that effort, all that London curing and vacuum sealing and transoceanic overnight flights—all for something that might be called the Emperor’s New Smoked Fish.

But I don’t regret this encounter with the Void, with the ethnic cleansing that takes the delicatessen out of the delicacy for the edification of the delicate among us. Because it gives me an excuse for writing a tribute to the truly wonderful, scandalously overlooked smoked fish experience: smoked sable.

Scandalously overlooked.” I know this is an imprecise metric, but I got 6.6 million Google hits for “smoked salmon” and a mere 10,000 for smoked sable.

How can this be? Among the 10,000 there was one extremely knowledgeable piece by former New York Times food writer Marion Burros, who foresaw a new era of fashionableness for smoked sable. The article appeared in May, 2001. The promised wave has not yet crested to say the least.

One reason for her optimism was that black cod, the common name for sablefish, had been adopted by upscale places like Nobu, albeit with all sorts of soy and miso glazes supposedly enhancing the flavor. This is not what I’m talking about.

(Just for the record “black cod” is not a member of the cod family. Technically “the true name is skilfish, a member of the Anaplopoma fimbria family,” Ms. Burros reports, and it “owes its richness to what it eats and where it lives, trolling the deepest waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean down to California, feasting on the likes of crabs and squid. No wonder Jon Rowley, a seafood marketing expert in Seattle, calls it ‘the aristocrat of the ocean.’” Oh no, class warfare enters the sable picture too.)

I know that my discovery of the smoked sable at Barney Greengrass ranks up there with a very few rare, revelatory, life-changing moments in my memory. Peter Brook’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream." The late-night voodoo ceremony outside of Port au Prince my ex-wife and I attended after receiving our Haitian divorce in Baby Doc’s “Palace of Justice.” 2 The first kiss I shared with my last love at 3 a.m. on the stone steps across from the UN building. You remember every detail.

I will not vouch for any smoked sable outside of Barney Greengrass but the fact that it exists is to me, like the Dream, the voodoo, and that kiss proof of a higher power in an otherwise bleak universe. Is that hyperbole enough for you?

I might never have learned about it if it hadn’t been for the Great Chopped Chicken Liver War. An epic three-way multi-part venomous struggle waged in the pages of The New York Observer (me), New York Magazine (Gael Geene) and The New Yorker (Daphne Merkin) over what was the best chopped chicken liver in New York. It got ugly, but in the end the The Jewish Daily Forward’s authoritative food maven conducted a blind taste testing and vindicated my championing of Barney Greengrass.

By that time though after extensive citywide taste testing I had temporarily lost my appetite for chopped liver.

I can’t remember who, I think it was Nora Ephron, whom I’d occasionally run into at B.G.’s who recommended the sable. When I say it was life-changing perhaps life-affirming is better. (After all, change is not always for the best.) One taste is more than a food experience; it’s like a plunge into a refreshing ocean wave. It’s not like eating fish it’s like consuming Neptune’s realm entire. It’s bracingly revivifying to your whole being. As if every cell down to the mitochondria was being born again emerging like Botticelli’s Venus from the sea foam.

Why is it that sable does not share the reputation, the foodie frenzy that smoked salmon does as a delicacy? I have a few theories. One of them involves blaming brunch. Sable is a pale, firm (but buttery tasting) sea-foam white-fleshed fish; it doesn’t attract the attention that unveiling the show-offy garish orange of salmon does, in the otherwise metaphysically beige circumstances of brunch. (Has anything interesting ever happened at a brunch?)

Or maybe it’s because those who have discovered it want to keep it a secret fearing scarcity?

Or is it just that sable is an obscure name. It makes sense when you learn it’s black cod, since sable is a synonym for black, as anyone who’s read the Phyrrus speech in Hamlet, the literary locus of sable, knows. 3

Or perhaps a mistaken association with the mink-like fur-bearing animal? 4

Whatever the reason this disjunction between smoked salmon’s status-driven popularity and smoked sable’s genuinely subtle sublimity is a great mystery.

Be careful out there, though. I’ve been disappointed by the sable at some other famous places. Fairway is uneven, thank God (thank cod?) or I’d be spending eleven dollars and forty seven cents for a quarter pound five times a week.

It’s a good thing I live a long way downtown from Barney Greengrass. But when you go there, and you must, make sure you order it plain, none of their unecessary garnishes or upsell “sable plates” with pickles and the like. Just the pristine slices of saline perfection laid out on a plate, flanked by a basket of lightly toasted pumpernickel (and sesame) bagels. You are in the Odessa of Isaac Babel! You are in the Upper West Side where Isaac Bashevis Singer still lives (his apartment was around the corner [I wonder why]). You are in smoked fish heaven and you will be forever grateful to me for it.

  1. Which brings us back to poshlost. In a 1967 interview in Paris Review, Nabokov defined it as "corny trash, vulgar cliches, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature."

  2. The Palace of Justice post-2010 earthquake.

  3. “the rugged Pyrrhus/He whose sable arms...”