Joan Nathan and Guy Pines. Photo: Ohad Kab
Joan Nathan and Guy Pines. Photo: Ohad Kab
Magazine

What connects Joan Nathan, Lox and Yom Kippur?

Joan Nathan and Guy Pines set out to find out why Bagels and Lox are such a popular American institution.

Date cookies, soft yeasted cakes or spiced raisin rolls are old school, well-known foods to break fast in Israel. While a bagel with Lox a little less so. Yet it is a well-established (albeit young) custom that emerged in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Why bagels and Lox, exactly? As part of a joint excursion, Joan Nathan – legendary food researcher, author of award-winning cookbooks and a member of the FOODISH Board – together with Guy Pines – who apart from being Mr. TV in Israel is also a passionate and inquisitive foodie (with a strong passion for Ashkenazi cuisine) – visited ACME, the oldest Lox factory in New York and discovered how new traditions are born with old roots.

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Lox is brined salmon, a technique common in Northern and Eastern European cuisine. Gil Marks, author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, says that the name “Lox” is taken from the German word for salmon. However, because of the price, Eastern European Jews took to brining cheaper fish, such as herring or carp. Only when Eastern European Jews emigrated to America did they find salmon readily available and cheaper, resulting in its addition to the menu. In America refrigeration was also readily available, and so pickling fish was no longer done out of necessity but instead because of culinary preference. Pickling times were shortened and the traditional technique of brining with salt became just one in a list of various preservation techniques, such as smoking.

Lox and its smoked and pickled entourage crossed the boundaries of the Jewish community at Sunday breakfasts. Jewish businessmen, who socialized with non-Jewish counterparts, looked for a kosher alternative to the traditionally served bacon and eggs. Thus they paired their beloved pickled fish with the bagel, an already popular Jewish staple, and a new classic was born. Due to its quick preparation, this filling and delicious meal became a popular fast-breaker among American Jews.

The story of ACME began in 1906, when Harry Brownstein emigrated from Russia to New York. He began purchasing smoked fish from factories in the area, loaded them onto a horse-drawn cart and sold them in delicatessens around the city.

Browstein opened a smoked fish factory in Brooklyn together with a partner in 1937, but by 1954 he established a new family factory together with his two sons. Brownstein chose the name ACME also because of the meaning of the word – the best in its field – but also for practical reasons; the name appeared first in the Yellow Pages. Brownstein died in 1969, but by then his factory was already well-established; he and his sons also managed to open a factory producing pickled herring and with a list of regular customers such as local supermarket chains. The various family members who joined the business continued to expand it into other areas and today the factory produces over 10 million kilograms of smoked and pickled fish per year.

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