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The Sturgeon Queens
The Sturgeon Queens
What Is an Appetizing Store?
On Sunday, September 7, Spertus Institute screens theThe Sturgeon Queens, a touching and hilarious documentary chronicling the 100-year history of Russ & Daughters, the venerable appetizing store on New York's Lower East Side.
If you've ever been to Russ & Daughters, there are a few things you probably know. You know, for example, that the lox there are served “paper thin,” in the way only Russ & Daughters can slice them. And you might even know about their world famous bialys — those flatter, holeless cousins of the bagel. What you probably don’t know (unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker) is why in the world it’s called an “appetizing store” in the first place. That’s what we’re here to explain.
The history of appetizing stores runs concurrent with the history of Jews in America. When the first wave of Jewish immigrants first set foot on American shores in the early 1800s, they brought with them their regional culinary traditions, as well as their Jewish dietary laws, otherwise known as kosher laws. These dietary laws prohibited Jews from mixing meat and milk for consumption or sale, meaning that Jewish store owners couldn't sell meat products alongside dairy products in the same shop. As a result, two very different kinds of grocery stores started to pop up in cities with large Jewish populations. The stores that sold meat became known as delicatessens, named after the German word for "fine foods." The stores that sold mostly fish and dairy products became known as appetizing stores, so named for the Latin word "appete," meaning "to desire, covet, or long for."
Step foot into an appetizing store and you’re bound to encounter a plethora of familiar products. While most appetizing stores are known for their fish selections – lox (made from salted, cured salmon), smoked herring, and sturgeon are all-time favorites - you’re just as likely to find heaping bins of egg salad, tuna salad, and hummus, as well as shelves of baked goods like rugalach and black-and-white cookies. And while you might think New York City has the market cornered on appetizing stores, you’d be wrong. Chicago puts up a strong contender with Kaufman’s, a bakery, delicatessen, and caterer specializing in “appetizing store” fare. (In fact, a recent article by Saveur.com listed Kaufman’s as the only appetizing store outside of New York to make the top 5!)
For the record, here's how the Huffington Post defines it: "Appetizing" here isn't an adjective describing something tasty, but a noun that basically refers to food you would eat with a bagel. Anything from white fish salad and smoked lox to cream cheese could be considered "appetizing," and while appetizing stores used to be a dime a dozen in New York City, only a handful remain today. Russ & Daughters, which is celebrating its centennial this year, is a true stalwart that has stood the test of time.
So there you have it. Everything you wanted to know about appetizing stores but were too busy eating lox and bagels to ask. If all this talk about appetizing stores whets your appetite, be sure to check out our September 7 screening of The Sturgeon Queens, featuring interviews with original Russ & Daughters employees, longtime customers, celebrity admirers, and even a US Supreme Court Justince!