The noun appetizing (as in to eat or serve appetizing) is a Jewish food tradition chiefly localized in New York City. Appetizing spreads typically include a variety of delicacies such as smoked and cured fish, schmears, and homemade salads — colloquially known as “the food one eats with bagels.”
The term appetizing is indigenous to New York, but the tradition itself originated in Eastern Europe where Jews began their meals with forshpayz or cold appetizers. At the turn of the twentieth century, millions of Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States, bringing their culinary tastes and traditions with them. The majority settled on the Lower East Side, where they worked long hours and lived in tenement buildings without iceboxes or proper ventilation, all of which made cooking at home particularly burdensome. As a result, food that required minimal refrigeration and preparation became dietary staples, such as cured and smoked meat and fish.
Traditionally, smoked fish was eaten with butter or cream cheese, which, as dairy, can’t be prepared or consumed with meat according to Jewish dietary law. Thus, two complementary but ultimately distinct institutions were established: the delicatessen (delis) specializing in cured, smoked, and pickled meats and the appetizing store (appys) which sold smoked, salted, and pickled fish along with the dairy products to pair with it.
By the 1930s, New York City was reportedly home to 500 appetizing shops — more than double the current number of Starbucks in Manhattan today. While once sidelined as ‘ethnic’ food, appetizing has become increasingly mainstream, with bagels and lox consistently lauded as one of New York’s primer culinary offerings. Paradoxically, only a handful of appys remain and the use of ‘appetizing’ as a noun has all but vanished from our lexicon. Many factors precipitated this decline, including the Jewish migration to the suburbs after World War II and the availability of appetizing products in bagel and grocery stores.
Over the past few decades, many of New York’s appetizing stores have made concessions to survive, such as significantly expanding their offerings or beginning to sell meat products. While these changes have preserved the physical stores, they simultaneously aided the appy's cultural decline by blurring their distinction from speciality grocery stores. Of the few appetizing stores that remain, none have navigated the delicate balance between authenticity and modernity as effectively as Russ and Daughters, which has been continuously operating for over a century.
In 1907, Joel Russ immigrated to the United States from Poland. He began selling pickled herring from a barrel on Hester Street, which was a popular source of protein at the time because it cost only a nickel and could be made to last for two meals if necessary. For the first meal, the fish would be rubbed on a piece of bread, coating it in a thin layer of fat. The fish itself would then be consumed as the second meal. Joel eventually became successful enough to open his own appetizing store, which he named Russ and Daughters (the first business reportedly to have “& Daughters” in its name instead of the more common “& Sons”) in honor of his three daughters who worked behind the counter. Less of a feminist statement than an ingenious marketing technique, the store became "as renowned for their daughters as their caviar."
Today, Russ and Daughters is run by Joel’s great grandchildren, Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, who are committed to preserving the appetizing tradition. Eager to experience one of the last true appys in New York City, I went to Russ and Daughters last Sunday morning
Despite recently being renovated, the store has a delightfully dated ambience. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photographs of the first two generations of the Russ family and their customers. A long, narrow counter runs the length of the store where employees in white-lab coats prepare customers’ orders. In front of the counter is a glass display case, featuring enormous slabs of glistening smoked salmon, herring fillets immersed in all manner of sauces, trays of schmears and dozens of prepared salads. Opposite the counter is a small section dedicated to sweet treats like hand-dipped chocolates, dried fruits, and baked goods — a traditional, if also slightly disorienting appy feature that serves as a counterpart to the predominating smoky, salty, and pickled flavors.
The wall behind the counter is obscured by thick metal shelves filled with a dizzying assortment of gourmet items such as olive oil, sardines, and caviar, a distinct departure from the store’s working class origins that highlights the shifting economics of the neighborhood and their customer base. On top of the shelves is a soffit with product names in black capital letters, which were hand-stenciled by Joel Russ in 1950.
The soffit is my favorite detail because it highlights the family’s continual negotiation between consistency and adaptation that has allowed Russ and Daughters to remain authentic and relevant for over a century. For example, the soffit has sections dedicated to their iconic products such as “Home Made Pickled Herring” but also lists products which have not been in stock for decades such as “Smoked Eel” and “Kapchunkas.”
After a long wait, my number was called and I ordered a bagel with lox, cream cheese, capers, and onions. In a city with a bagel shop on practically every corner, the quality of the food at Russ and Daughters stands out, a testament to the family’s commitment to high-quality sourcing and preparation. As appetizing food entered the mainstream, corners were inevitably cut to decrease cost and increase the mass market appeal, resulting in a less-appetizing (ha!) product. Rather than water-down their products to compete, the Russ family has opted to preserve the space, taste, and tradition of the appetizing experience, providing a rare sense of continuity in an ever-changing city.
Russ & Daughters
179 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10002
Not in NYC? Order online here: https://russanddaughters.goldbely.com/