THE seriousness of fall, with its early twilights, overbooked restaurants and new television shows, has descended, and the simple, enduring rituals of city life that seemed impertinent in the heat are reviving. In other words, brunch is back.
The quintessential New York brunch involves a deceptively simple triumvirate: bagel, cream cheese and lox. It is salmon that lies at the heart of this classic dish, and salmon that lies at the heart of its mystery. Those innocent pink ribbons of flesh could tell a tale of battered national pride, ecological battles, ethnic inauthenticity, economic flux and jousting connoisseurs, a tale that spans the globe and the centuries.
The history of a fish is bound to be blurry. But the story of where smoked salmon comes from and how it became a symbol of New York is especially elusive.
A sign behind the cool glass counter at Russ & Daughters, a Houston Street delicatessen that began life in 1905 as a pickled herring pushcart, reads, "Lox et veritas." Both are in short supply these days.
Mark Russ Federman, the 57-year-old owner, grandson of the original Russ, pointed to a meaty, deep pink chunk of fish: lox, which in his store means the rich, brine-cured belly of a wild Pacific salmon. "That's where it all started," he said.
But today, lox accounts for only a small fraction of his salmon sales.
"People use lox as a general term -- bagel and lox -- but what is traditional and genuine lox is not smoked salmon at all," said Mr. Federman's daughter Niki, who also works at the shop. "It is a salmon cured in salt brine. No refrigeration needed. When people come into the store, they ask for lox, and we say, 'Are you sure?' "
Terry Huggins, charcuterie manager at Dean & DeLuca, has not sold a piece of lox since 1990. Even at Barney Greengrass, that emporium of nostalgia, lox doesn't sell well, and Saul Zabar himself prefers the more modern, Nova-style smoked fish. Today, most of the Sunday-morning salmon sold in New York -- 2,500 pounds each week at Zabar's alone -- is not lox, but lightly salted and smoked salmon.
For some traditionalists, the dainty stuff now in vogue will not do.
"When I'm in the mood, this is the only one that's satisfying," Mr. Federman said. "My grandfather started with this. Somehow that on a bagel makes it for me." His lox oozes with ocean, begging for cream cheese to counter the saltiness. "It is roots and nostalgia, that salt taste," Mr. Federman added. "I think we have a genetic predisposition to the taste of salt-cured fish."
The 20th-Century Mikvah
Tell a Scot about the wedding of a Jewish woman and a Scottish man at which the attractions included tartan yarmulkes and Jewish delicacies like smoked salmon, and he'll laugh.
"That's a good one!" said Roddy Wilde, until recently head of international trading for Pinneys of Scotland, one of Britain's largest salmon processors, as he drove toward Scottish Sea Farms near Oban, where much of the fish processed at Pinneys comes from. Mr. Wilde had a point. Smoke and salt have been used to preserve fish since antiquity.
Countries of northern Europe have a long tradition of smoking fish to conserve salt. In fact, the word lox is derived from the German lachs, meaning salmon. Near the River Bann in Ireland lie the remains of what is thought to be a fish-drying and -smoking station dating to 2000 B.C.
American recipes using smoked salmon date to the early 19th century, when it was a pricey restaurant food. But, according to Claudia Roden, author of "The Book of Jewish Food," there is no evidence that Eastern European Jews ate lox or smoked salmon in the shtetls. They ate copious amounts of fish, but salmon was usually too expensive.
Lox and smoked salmon became Jewish through an accident of migration. When European immigrants came to New York, they brought traditions of smoking and salting fish. But the stuff did not take off until the arrival of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century.
In the United States, the opening of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 connected the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which were teeming with wild salmon, with New York fishmongers. Barrels filled with hundreds of pounds of salmon interleaved with salt were transported east. The salt drew water from the flesh of the fish, creating a briny bath that preserved the salmon for up to a year without refrigeration.
At the same time, the market for lox was exploding. Eastern European immigrants would have appreciated lox both for its price -- 9 cents for a quarter-pound in the 1920's and 30's -- and for its convenience. It was easy to handle -- and pareve, making it acceptable with milk or meat. It fast became a staple.
"Think about it in terms of tenements, the crowded conditions and absence of cooking facilities," said James Shenton, professor emeritus at Columbia University, whose specialty is immigrant history. "Lox had the advantage of not requiring the effort that would have made life more complicated than it was."
This phenomenon could be seen elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora: H. Forman & Son, the last of London's traditional East End smokers, was founded in 1905 by a Jewish immigrant from Russia. And as the fish's popularity grew, techniques for preparing it evolved rapidly.
"When they discovered there was fabulous wild salmon coming down to Billingsgate market every summer," said Lance Forman, the fourth-generation proprietor, "they thought: 'Well, no point in shipping them over. Let's try smoking these instead.' " Thus was born the mild "London cure," achieved by curing fillets with dry salt for 24 hours and cold-smoking them over oakwood for 24 more. This process is still followed at Forman's, whose smoked wild Scottish salmon is sold at Fairway, Zabar's and Dean & DeLuca.
A similar drift from heavy salting occurred in the United States, especially after refrigeration rendered briny preservation obsolete. But salmon here was typically cured in a low-salt liquid solution, which creates a silky, chewier fish. Salmon prepared this way, much of which used to be imported from Nova Scotia and the Gaspe Peninsula, was often sold as Nova or Gaspe. Pacific salmon was often sold as Western Nova. The names stuck.
How the Fish Took the Town
The Lower East Side's ramshackle crush of diversity and poverty was fertile ground for culinary invention. By the early 20th century, cream cheese, lox and bagels were available in tempting proximity. One day, some anonymous genius combined them.
"Who put the triumvirate together, no one knows," Mr. Federman said. But what is clear is that this inspired combination of immigrant Jewish foods rapidly won over mainstream palates.
Lox's leap from the ghetto reflected a larger spread of Jewish culture in the 1920's that occurred as Jews moved out of the Lower East Side into mainstream culture, becoming prominent in show business and especially in the movie industry.
"Jewish culture in a sense became fashionable because of show business," said Mark Kurlansky, author of "Salt: A World History." "If you think about people like Irving Berlin or the Marx Brothers, people who just became New York culture, they were Lower East Side Jews."
Herbert Goldman, Al Jolson's biographer, even suggests that the great Jolson himself might have sparked the combination's popularity. Jolson appeared regularly on Kraft's musical revues in the 1930's, and James Lewis Kraft, founder of the cheese company, told the performers to refer to company products in their routines as often as possible. Who's to say Jolson didn't rattle off a ditty about cream cheese, lox and bagels in a winning fit of commercial imagination?
Andrew F. Smith, editor in chief of the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, has a more primal hypothesis: "Fast food," he said. "It's easy. It's good."
When Packaging Trumps Place
Today, New York bagels are dressed with an array of pink, red and orange strips of smoked salmon, which is typically marketed by country of origin. There are only two major classes of salmon: Atlantic, which is found throughout Northern Europe, on the Eastern Seaboard of North America, and in Chile; and Pacific, which is found in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. But you can buy smoked salmon identified as Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, Gaspe or Nova.
These geographic distinctions are increasingly obsolete. Much of the salmon at emporiums like Zabar's, Fairway, Barney Greengrass, Russ & Daughters and Dean & DeLuca actually comes from Acme Smoked Fish, a third-generation smokehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Acme's day begins at 4 a.m. The fish are prepared Nova style, cured in salt, water and brown sugar, before being cold-smoked on racks in a large oven. Fruitwood shavings burn in a small stove, making the 50,000-square-foot factory smell incongruously of a campfire. The salmon, whether farmed fish from Norway, Chile and the Faeroe Islands, or wild Pacific salmon from Alaska, is processed identically.
"Nova is really a style of curing fish," said Buzz Billick, vice president of sales at Acme. "Nova has nothing to do with the type of fish. At one time, yes. Today, no."
The geographical confusion extends to the fish sold at Fairway, whose in-house smoked salmon is sometimes Canadian fish, sometimes Chilean. Olga Ortiz, a wiry Ecuadorean, smokes 150 sides -- 450 pounds -- a week in a small metal box at the end of a hallway lined with coats on the third floor of the Fairway in Harlem.
Fairway also sells Scotch-style salmon made at Acme by dry-curing Norwegian or Chilean fish and smoking it over fruitwood.
Scotch-style salmon? "That's a New York invention," said Mr. Wilde of Pinneys.
And Nova lox? He laughed. "The problem," he said, "is you are looking for truth in something that is not very well developed. It has been a ramshackle band of misfits trying to make smoked salmon in many different countries."
How the Fish Lost Its Soul
Today, almost all the smoked salmon sold in New York is grown on a farm. Zabar's has not carried wild smoked salmon for a decade. Acme gets virtually all of the five million pounds of salmon it smokes each year from farms in Norway and Chile.
With farmed fish, how the fish are raised, cured and smoked has more impact on the final product than nationality, although some would argue otherwise. Scots helped establish some fish farms in Chile, and many farms in Scotland and Chile are owned by Norwegian companies. But Mr. Billick would never sell Russ Federman a Chilean fish. Mr. Ortiz of Fairway thinks Chilean salmon are the best.
Some say water temperature and quality make Scottish fish different from Norwegian fish. But most variables involved in raising salmon can be controlled by manufacturers. This level of industrial control has made salmon a cheap, consistent product but the soul of the fish did not withstand the pressures of modern commerce. Salmon was dubbed the king of fish not only for its noble journey back upstream to spawn but also for its wily inconsistency.
"They have a mystique all their own," said David Pullar, who has been fishing salmon commercially for three decades. "You think you've got their patterns worked out, what they are going to do next, and they do something completely different that throws all your reckoning upside down."
Every 12 hours Mr. Pullar checks his nets along the beach at Usan, one of Scotland's oldest fishing villages. "Salmon swim with the wind," he said. "They are like women. You never know where you are with them."
But in an era of mechanized factories, fish farms and supermarkets, chances are next to zero that the salmon on your bagel ever swam with the wind. The fish's vaunted unpredictability has become a liability.
"I think people are so excited about the fact they can get good fresh farmed salmon 52 weeks of a year," Mr. Billick said, "they don't think about what goes into making the fish this fat and this red."
The fat comes from a sedentary lifestyle and the red comes from chemically enhanced feed pellets. Without additives, the flesh of farm-raised salmon would be gray. Buyers can specify the color they want, using a standardized color scale that looks like paint chips.
The Life of a Modern Fish
For some fish, the road to Zabar's begins on a tray in a hatchery on the Isle of Mull, off Scotland's west coast. Fish to be sold next summer were eggs in December 2000. The next spring, they were put in cages in freshwater lochs, where they stayed for a year, until the smolts were ready to go out to sea.
This April, Neil MacInnes, who manages a farm site for Scottish Sea Farms, bucked over the glassy surface of Loch Creran, near Oban, in a light metal boat. He was headed for one of the large plastic cages floating in the loch. The area was ringed by wild forest, tree farms, a few houses and an old factory. The beauty of the place was so complete, it seemed breakable.
The cages had been stocked two weeks earlier with 350,000 smolts, which will be harvested next spring. Mr. MacInnes fed the fish pellets made of fish meal, fish oil, soy and dye. Aside from the plunk of the small fish jumping and the scattershot murmur of the pellets, the place was silent.
On shore, at the Scottish Sea Farms processing station in South Shian, 11,000 identical salmon were being pumped from a boat up a long black pipeline to a shed, where their life ended with a sharp snap of a stun machine. All the fish were bled, gutted, tagged and shipped within eight hours.
From South Shian, a fish might move to a factory like Pinneys, which processes 13,000 tons of farmed salmon annually. Each fish travels a course of conveyor belts and chutes, along which it is mechanically guillotined, washed and filleted. The fish is dry-cured for 24 to 72 hours and smoked over oak for 14 hours. Saul Zabar's fish is hand-sliced and vacuum-packed before going on a plane in Manchester, London or Glasgow. The whole process takes at least 10 days.
"We are really no longer in the farmer's kitchen doing things haphazardly," Mr. Wilde said. "It is a big business."
For Mr. Federman of Russ & Daughters, salmon is also a good business.
"My grandfather came over here, and it was all poverty," he said. "He left poverty. He came here and the streets weren't lined with gold. It wasn't the golden Medina. It was the Lower East Side ghetto."
His parents met over a barrel of pickled herring and worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, so the children wouldn't have to go home smelling like fish. Mr. Federman studied law but ended up a fishmonger.
"The ultimate Jewish irony is that I would like my kids to be here doing this," he said. "My fish business is less fishy than most things out there. I am probably the only Jewish father who is disappointed his kid wants to be a doctor."