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An Ode to Lox


Growing up Jewish in The Bronx in the 1950s meant certain foods that were to become iconic to me, and none more so than lox.

The word is from the Yiddish word for “salmon” and refers to brined, or salted, salmon, thinly sliced. There are many different kinds of the food we call “lox.” Belly lox is simply salmon that has been brined—cured in salt. But New York Jews grew up, not on belly lox, but on Nova.

When my father went food shopping early on Saturday morning to get ready for the weekend, he would buy smoked whitefish, giant black-and-white cookies, cream cheese, a dozen or so bagels—and a pound of Nova. Nova is brined salmon that has also been lightly smoked, or “cold-smoked,” which is at a temperature below 85 degrees. The classic smoking wood is alder, but apple, oak and maple will do. The traditional New York salmon fish hails from Nova Scotia, which is why it’s called Nova.

Lox is the quintessential comfort food to me. When I was working, people used to ask me what my favorite food and wine were, and I’d tell them that if I were stranded on a tropical island and could eat only one thing for the rest of my life, it would be salmon (raw, straight from the sea, i.e. sushi) and Champagne, preferably a toasty, yeasty Blanc de Blancs. But if I could brine and smoke that salmon and turn it into lox, it would be even better. (Since salmon is a cold water fish, it would be impossible to find any near a tropical island.)

I eat smoked salmon every day. It’s not Nova, of course, because it’s hard to get salmon from Nova Scotia on the West Coast. Most of our locally-sourced salmon (which is of the Chinook variety) comes from the cold Pacific, or the even colder waters of California rivers such as the Klamath. I buy most of my smoked salmon at Whole Foods, which claims that it gets its fish from sustainable farms in Norway and Scotland. Smoked salmon is always pricey; I’ve seen it at Williams Sonoma for $50 a pound. At Whole Foods it’s usually $30 a pound, although occasionally it’s on sale for $22.

When I say I eat smoked salmon every day, that doesn’t mean I gorge on it. I like to have one ounce on one side of a buttered, toasted English muffin for breakfast. (On the other side I put melted cheese and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.) The traditional Jewish preparation for lox is on a bagel with cream cheese, and while I certainly wouldn’t argue if you offered me that, I prefer English muffins to bagels and butter to cream cheese.

I would never eat lox in any form except the pure, cold stuff you buy in the store. I wouldn’t put it into scrambled eggs. Some people put horse radish in their lox–eeewww–and I’ve also seen, and rejected, sushi rolls with smoked salmon, avocado and wasabi. I don’t like the way a lot of hotels and restaurants serve “bagels and lox” with sliced onions, capers, tomatoes and so on. What’s the point of that? Lox is so wonderful that goofing it up with a bunch of other stuff is culinary sacrilege.

The smell, taste and texture of lox bring me back to my childhood, which is always a pleasant experience for old people. But it’s more than that. I don’t crave smoked white fish (too bony) or bagels or the rotisserie-grilled chicken wings with paprika, salt and pepper mom used to make. But I do crave lox. I won’t try to put the texture and flavors into words, except to say that it’s silky, creamy, salty-sweet, oily and salmon-y.

Oh, and one more thing. The late, great Jewish comedian, Alan King, used to say, “Smoked salmon is for dinner. Belly lox is for breakfast. Don’t get that mixed up.” I never do.

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