Dept. of Word Lists

An Appetizing Story

Once again award-winning writer and educator Bob Greenman takes us on a journey through words selected from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly. Here Bob introduces us to a dextrous slicer of lox and the world of "appetizing."

Tomas Tejada, lox slicer extraordinaire, placed a side of pink, glistening smoked salmon on the cutting board, held it steady with his latex-gloved left hand, and trimmed away the less perfect part of the flesh with the other, throwing some of it away and putting some aside to be sold as trimmings at a cheaper price. I was paying $17 for a half pound of prime smoked salmon at Zabar's, a gourmet food store and one of Manhattan's fabled smoked fish purveyors, and from what I saw being discarded, I knew why it was so costly.

Mr. Tejada's knife moved gracefully, slowly, deliberately as he cut away almost transparent leaves of salmon flesh and laid the lustrous slices on heavy paper. Every few slices, he would trim away the less premium flesh. At one point, after a trimming, he picked up a needle point pliers and pulled out a row of ten tiny, slender bones before slicing again.

lustrous LUS truhs
having a sheen or gloss
Kalamata are the best-known Greek olives, and are unmistakable for their elegant almond shape that comes to a sharp point, like a comma, and their lustrous eggplant color. — Corby Kummer, June 1993

 "What's the most popular lox for bagels and cream cheese," I had asked Mr. Tejada, using lox as a general term for all smoked salmon, for there are many kinds, among them Nova Scotia, double-smoked, Norwegian, Scotch and peppered nova. The name lox, itself, should be reserved for salmon that's cured in brine, not smoked.

"Zabar's Nova Salmon," he replied. And so, to go with the bagels and cream cheese already at home,  I bought a half pound of Zabar's nova for the four people who would be at Sunday breakfast.

The first time I entered Zabar's, a venerated gourmet food market on Manhattan's Upper West Side known especially for its smoked fish, I couldn't stop grinning. Shelves and tables and counters filled with cheese greeted me — more than 600 kinds, I later learned — most of which customers may ask for a taste of before buying. In the next room dozens of kinds of salamis, bolognas and sausages lay on shelves, and a hundred kinds of prepared foods — from grilled asparagus to roast duck; from glazed ribs to eggplant parmigiana — were temptingly displayed, to heat up at home.

Lamenting that my wife wasn't with me to experience this Nirvana, I left the store, in that pre-cell phone era, called her from a pay phone on the street to share my thrilling discovery, then went back inside and walked around in a dreamlike state. Go there and I promise you the same. That first visit was in the 1970's, when Zabar's was two narrow, side-by-side stores. Now it's four combined stores, and cheese alone fills one of them.

lament luh MENT
an expression of regret or disappointment
The common lament on our campuses is the dearth of "major poets," and the critics are scuttling to find one. If they cannot find him, surely they can invent him: study someone until he turns out to be major by simply dominating the course catalogues. The distinction between major and minor in poetry has not often been useful except when discriminating between a Homer, a Dante, a Shakespeare, a Goethe — and the others. Yet today critics pick over the contemporary and near contemporary crops of poetry with all the concentration of cannery workers sorting and grading fruit. — Peter Davison, October 1967

While Zabar's has many departments, its spiritual center is its appetizing section. For those of you who think appetizing is strictly an adjective, in New York City, and in places New York has influenced culinarily, appetizing is also used as a noun. Thus, when you buy bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, white fish or sturgeon, or creamed or pickled herring, you're buying appetizing. (Note: Shame on you, Oxford English Dictionary, for carrying appetizing only as an adjective.)

Russ & Daughters' appetizing store stands six miles south of Zabar's, on Houston Street, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, hundreds of thousands of European Jews lived in crowded tenements.

Appetizing stores abounded on those streets, providing the smoked fish and dairy in the immigrants' kosher diets, while the meat part of that kosher diet came from butcher shops and the delicatessens that served kosher-style corned beef, pastrami, salami and tongue. Partnered with appetizing was the bagel, sold in every appetizing store from time immemorial. Russ & Daughters' Web site explains appetizing (the noun) simply as "the foods one eats with bagels." But although, traditionally, appetizing has never included meat, the global popularity of the bagel today makes that iconic staple of meatless dining the vehicle for just about anything it can carry. Meatloaf on a bagel? I don't want to know about it. BLT on a bagel? Please!

(By the way, the pronunciation of Houston, the Manhattan street, is a shibboleth. Pronounce it like the name of the Texas city, and you're immediately branded "not from here" by New Yorkers, who will be happy to inform that it's HOWS tin.)

shibboleth SHI buh lith
a catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched south and north in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the deeper cause of the conflict. — W. E. B. Du Bois, March 1901

While Zabar's is a huge food shop with one long and hallowed counter devoted to appetizing, Russ & Daughters is a true appetizing shop. Whatever else it sells is secondary. It's a little place, Russ & Daughters, the last of its kind in a neighborhood that had dozens of them fifty years ago, and it's been a shrine to appetizing where for more than 60 years connoisseurs from across the country and the world have come for the to-die-for smoked salmon and creamed herring, a transcendent experience.

connoisseur kah nuh SER
a person who has expert knowledge and taste in some field, especially the arts
No reasonable theory will every be able to explain how or why it was that so many Dutchmen were painters, and all during one, or at the most two, human generations. It is not enough to say that hard-won national independence made them take up their brushes. In seventeenth-century Holland the number of artists was entirely incredible; and down to today, connoisseurs of painting with some pretension to knowledge often have the experience of entering a picture gallery to find some beautiful painting of supreme handling and technical merit by a Dutchman whose name they never remember having heard before. — Sacheverell Sitwell, April 1954

The store is run by Niki Russ Federman and Joshua Russ Tupper, two cousins in their thirties whose great-great-grandfather, Joel Russ, opened the place in 1920. Russ's three daughters worked in the store before they were teenagers and he later made them partners, an unheard of arrangement when store names ended only with — as they almost always do today — "& Sons."

Niki's life plan, following her graduation from Amherst College with a major in political science, had not been to run her family business. Neither had Josh's, who left a career in chemical engineering for the store. "It's in our blood," he says.

It took Niki three weeks to become adept at slicing lox. "When I had finally gotten it down and had become somewhat skillful at it," she said on a store blog, "my father came in one day, and as he was watching me slice he was kvelling, he was just so proud of me. That I, his daughter, fourth generation Russ, could slice and slice well, you'd think I had won the Nobel Prize. All of my accomplishments and higher learning paled in comparison to a nice slice that you could read the paper through. That's the ultimate test."

kvell kvel
to burst with pride over someone else's accomplishment: Yiddish
Good families have a chief, or a heroine, or a founder — someone around whom others cluster, whose achievements, as the Yiddish word has it, let them kvell, and whose example spurs them on to like feats. — Jane Howard, May 1978

Niki's dad's delight is partly explained by the fact that, traditionally, the appetizing counter has been a male realm, as it currently is at Zabar's. Niki's place as counterwoman ("I slice fish every day," she told me) as well as co-owner should put to rest, however, the myth that only males possess the fish-slicing gene. But Niki is not the only female counterperson at Russ & Daughters: Alina Sheffi has worked behind the counter for nearly 20 years. Let's give her a kvell as well.

The name of Russ & Daughters' blog is kvell-worthy, too. Lox Populi (a play on vox populi) was the winning entry in a  2008 blog-naming contest run by the store and won by Andy Fisher, a Russ & Daughters regular who owns Astor Wines, in Greenwich Village.

vox populi VAHKS PAH pyuh ligh
the voice of the people; popular opinion or sentiment
There is no democracy in culture and the arts. In other words, the vox populi is usually worth nothing. With rare exceptions, the artists and cultural voices that caught the public's fancy did not survive. For the occasional genius recognized in his lifetime, such as Dickens, there are always scores who are ridiculed, if they are noticed at all. — John Simon December 1978

Russ & Daughters is almost entirely take-out, but occasionally it's eat-in. I once saw a man in a suit and overcoat leaning up against the counter near the back of the store, eating from a plastic container pieces of freshly cut-up creamed herring, lifting his plastic fork slowly to his mouth, and quite noticeably savoring every bite, as a taxi waited for him outside. Was he on his way to the airport?  Going home or to work? Making up for the bland lunch someone had treated him to?

"He needed a fix," said a woman in line ahead of me who had been watching him, too, and had just paid for her purchases. Mortals whose mouths are unacquainted with the ambrosial taste, aroma and feel of a piece of Russ & Daughters' creamed herring with onions cannot appreciate the bliss it brings — or the rapture.

Leaving this Houston Street sanctum sanctorum a few minutes later, I noticed that same woman leaning against a car at the curb in front of the store. She had opened a container and was eating a piece of creamed herring.

"Couldn't wait," she said to me between chews.

"Good?" I asked.

She closed her eyes softly.

"Heavenly," she replied.

sanctum sanctorum SANGK tuhm sangk TOH ruhm
the holiest of holy places
Across the emerald pool fell a shimmering image of lotus-shaped cupolas and copper-gilt walls. Dhoti-clad men lowered themselves on chains into the water to perform ablutions; women in saris murmured prayers in Punjabi. Such a domain of peace and piety — the Golden Temple, the sanctum sanctorum of Sikhism — had been impossible to imagine while navigating the clamorous lanes of Amritsar outside. The temple was orderly, efficient, with gurus on duty in shrines around its sides, and with Sikh bookstores and a museum of Sikh history at its entrance. Sikh guards, dressed in robes of alabaster white and turbans of royal blue, patrolled the chalk-soft marble walkways with spears, enforcing a discipline and solemnity foreign to places of worship elsewhere in India. — Jeffrey Tayler, November 1999

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 3rd 2011, 2:15 AM
Comment by: Peter K. (Lewes, East Sussex United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Thank you Bob, as ever. Words grow ever more wordsworth with the light you shine on them...
Tuesday May 3rd 2011, 12:30 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Bob's column turns Visual Thesaurus into Edible Thesaurus--suddenly I'm hungry, starving, famished, ravenous, peckish, and overall ready to eat, scarf, munch, chew, dine, sup, and fil my belly!
Tuesday May 3rd 2011, 3:16 PM
Comment by: Katherine S. (Brooklyn, NY)
I've lived in NYC 27 years now (including down the street from Russ and Daughters for 2 years), but this article proves I'll always just be a Catholic girl from Texas: Most of the food (and food-word lore) in here I never knew until now! Thanks Bob...though now I'm hungry too.
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 11:05 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)

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