How the Humble Jewish Herring Became Haute American Cuisine

Jews from Eastern Europe brought the recipe to America, where it became a cheap protein; but the status of herring in the culinary world changed when the little fish made aliyah to Israel.

In 1907, 21-year-old Joel Russ arrived in New York’s Lower East Side. “If you asked him, he would say he came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” his grandson Mark Russ Federman told me. “But in fact he was a poor Jew from a poor shtetl in Galicia.”

Russ was sponsored by his sister Channah who wanted him to help her with the herring business she was running. The business was no more than a small herring stall, and Joel was given a herring pushcart close by. “They were three herrings for 10 cents,” said Mark, “wrapped up in the daily newspaper, usually the Forverts.” The poor would take the herring home, put it in a pan with potatoes and onion and put it in the stove. “It was a cheap source of protein.”

By 1914 Joel was able to find a shidduch, get married, have his first baby girl, Hattie, and open an appetizing store, specializing in cured fish. Joel and his wife Bella (“She called him Russ in a heavy accent," his grandson says. "He called her in Yiddish Zug, meaning basically “Hey, you”) later had two more daughters, Ida and Anne, who helped run the store, together with their husbands.

The story of Russ & Daughters, the Russ family and the Lower East Side, their clients and the many fish they sold, is told in Mark’s book Russ & Daughters, Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built that was published earlier this year.

Reb Arieh Leib Karbelnikov arrived in Palestine from Lithuania in the 1920s, and in 1936 opened a little herring store in what is now the Carmel Market in south Tel Aviv. It was the time of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, with one of its centers in Jaffa, and the market area was hardly developed. “The British were still ruling the region, and they knew and appreciated the matjes (a younger and more delicate herring),” Reb Arieh’s grandson, Abraham Karbelnikov told me. The store sold schmaltz herring (fat herring), a favorite among the Polish-Jews. “That generation, the longing would bring them to the store. You could see it in their eyes. Even those who were not allowed to eat the salted fish would come just to smell,” Abraham continued. “But this generation is gone now.” Among the Karbelnikov’s Fish Center's more famous clients were David Ben-Gurion, Shai Agnon, Meir Dizengoff and Menachem Begin.

Jews from Eastern Europe emigrated to America and Israel at the turn of the 20th century, coming from the same culinary background, but into two different societies and different economic conditions. While some staples from their culinary heritage remained in both countries, like the matzo ball soup, kugel and gefilte fish, it’s interesting to follow the different paths the herring trade took in both places.

According the Shmil Holland, an Israeli food historian and author of "Scmhaltz, Eastern European Jewish cuisine, Traditions and Bubbe Meises" (in Hebrew), herring trade in Eastern Europe was dominated by Jews since the 15th century and was aimed mainly at Jewish clientele. “Some were in charge of making the barrels, some of buying the fish, pickling, shipping, and selling.” The salted herring barrels found their way to Jewish communities in Germany, Poland, Russia and more, where they were sold.

Things changed when the herring made aliyah to Israel. While it continued being served at every kiddush in the synagogues, and was pickled and enjoyed in Ashkenazi homes, the rest of the country did not join the herring club. “It was always popular with Orthodox and Eastern European communities in Israel, them and the pubs,” said Shmil. “But eating herring, and other Ashkenazi staples, was considered shtetl-like by the Zionist movement, while Mizrahi cuisine was considered authentic.” Even the beloved chicken soup got the unflattering nickname “laundered chicken."

One example is that of Miki Delicatessen, a major cured fish manufacturer in Israel that operates since 1936, that added a line of Mizrahi (North African or Middle Eastern) mezze in the '70s, with salads like hummus, tahini and baba ganoush.

In Israel, Jews from the Balkan added their cured fish to the Ashkenazi table, in a typical Israeli fusion, with a delicacy like lakerda, cured bonito fish from Turkey, and ikra, carp roe dip from Romania, that were accepted by the Polish Jews with great enthusiasm.

In the Lower East Side, Russ & Daughters started adding lox to their inventory (a name that derives from the Yiddish word for salmon, laks, or the German lachs). A huge amount of salmon from the Pacific Ocean, that were brined in heavily salted water, were transported by train to New York (a lot of it on its way to Europe), but some stayed in the city and made its way to the Lower East Side. “It was very cheap in those days,” said Mark. “Even into the 1930s, lox was selling for 35 cents a pound. Now it’s 35 dollars a pound.”

“The Jews have now entered the smoke house business, which was pretty much a German business,” continued Mark. But while in Europe the common curing method was dry curing, salting the body of the salmon directly, the American lox was wet-cured in brine, then cold smoked at 75 degrees. To this day, Russ & Daughters offer an impressive collection of cured and smoked salmon, as well as the schmaltz herring, matjes, and many more.

During the 1930s, writes Gil Marks in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Jews were looking for an alternative to the popular, yet non-kosher eggs Benedict: They replaced the English muffin with a bagel, the hollandaise sauce with cream cheese and the ham with lox - an American staple to this day.

“In the last fifteen to twenty years, people in Israel are longing to the Ashkenazi food,” says Shmil. The Russian immigration contributed to the herring comeback, as well as the culture of drinking in bars, where herring and other cured fish are a perfect match. Cured fish are trendy, served by top chefs in hipster places, but still haven't made it to the mainstream. Abraham from the Fish Center in Shuk HaCarmel says gourmet guided tours bring new clients to his store. “This is a historic place,” he says. But when I ask him about the possibility of a fourth generation in the store that his grandfather built, he says this generation has found their own paths.

Ninety nine years after opening its doors in the Lower East Side, Joel’s Russ & Daughters appetizing store is as busy as ever. His daughter Hattie who retired in 1975 celebrated her 100th birthday a couple of weeks ago. When his grandson Mark retired in 2009, he turned the store over to his daughter Niki and nephew Josh, the fourth generation of the Russ family to run the store.

“We were originally a Jewish store in a Jewish neighborhood, selling Jewish food to Jewish costumers.” said Mark, “A hundred years later, just about everything has changed.” Half of their clientele are not Jewish. “The accents that were once uniformly Yiddish, are now English, French, Spanish. It used to be an older crowd, eating pickled fish and herring, and now it’s young, it’s hip, it’s in.” Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio are among their clients. And Niki is running a yearly sold-out event called Herring Pairing, serving the fish with gin, vodka and aquavit.

“The humble herring has become haute cuisine.”