Being Philip Roth at Barney Greengrass

June 19, 2006 | By | COMMENTS

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I recently finished reading Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (a fun, if challenging, Roth read) and discovered, upon reaching the book’s final chapter, that the last scene occurs at a place I knew lots about but never visited: Barney Greengrass. What follows is a brilliant section that perfectly describes the scene and the role it plays in Jewish lives:

“Smilesburger had chosen as the site for our editorial meeting a Jewish food store on Amsterdam Avenue, specializing in smoked fish, that served breakfast and lunch on a dozen Formica-topped tables in a room adjacent to the bagel and bialy counter and that looked as though, years back, when someone got the bright idea to “modernize,” the attempt at redecoration had been sensibly curtailed halfway through. The place reminded me of the humble street-level living quarters of some of my boyhood friends, whose parents would hurriedly eat their meals in a closet-sized storeroom just behind the shop to keep an eye on the register and the help. In Newark, back in the forties, we used to buy, for our household’s special Sunday breakfasts, silky slices of precious lox, shining fat little chubs, chunks of pale, meaty carp and paprikaed sable, all double-wrapped in heavy wax paper, at a family-run store around the corner that looked and smelled pretty much as this one did–the tiled floor sprinkled with sawdust, the shelves stacked with fish canned in sauces and oils, up by the cash register a prodigious loaf of halvah soon to be sawed into crumbly slabs, and, wafting up from behind the showcase running the length of the serving counter, the bitter fragrance of vinegar, of onions, of whitefish and red herring, of everything pickled, peppered, salted, smoked, soaked, stewed, marinated, and dried, smells with a lineage that, like these stores themselves, more than likely led straight back through the shtetl to the medieval ghetto and the nutrients of those who lived frugally and could not afford to dine a la mode, the diet of sailors and common folk, for whom the flavor of the ancient preservatives was life. And the neighborhood delicatessen restaurants where we extravagantly ate “out” as a treat once a month bore the same stamp of provisional homeliness, that hallmark look of something that hadn’t quite been transformed out of the eyesore it used to be into the eyesore it aspired to become. Nothing distracted the eye, the mind, or the ear from what was sitting on the plate. Satisfying folk cuisine eaten in simple surroundings, on tables, to be sure, and without people spitting in their plates, but otherwise earthy sustenance partaken in an environment just about as unsumptuous as a feasting place can get, gourmandizing at its most commonplace, the other end of the spectrum of Jewish culinary establishments from the commodiously chandeliered dining salon at Miami Beach’s Fountainbleau. Barley, eggs, onions, soups of cabbage, of beets, inexpensive everyday dishes prepared in the old style and devoured happily, without much fuss, off of bargain-basement crockery.

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By now, of course, what was once the ordinary fare of the Jewish masses had become an exotic stimulant for Upper West Siders two and three generations removed from the great immigration and just getting by as professionals in Manhattan on annual salaries that, a century earlier, would have provided daily banquets all year long for every last Jew in Galicia. I’d see these people–among them, sometimes, lawyers, journalists, or editors I knew–taking pleasure, mouthful by mouthful, in their kasha varnishkas and their gefilte fish (and riveted, all the while they unstintingly ate, to the pages of one, two, or even three daily papers) on those occasions when I came down to Manhattan from Connecticut and took an hour off from whatever else I was doing to satisfy my own inextinguishable appetite for the chopped-herring salad as it was unceremoniously served up (that was the ceremony) at one of those very same tables, facing onto the trucks, taxis, and fire engines streaming north, where Smilesburger had suggested that we meet for breakfast at ten a.m. to discuss my book.”

***

Ok, that was a crazy long passage to quote but who would you rather hear on the subject: me or a Pulitzer-Prize winner? (He’d never use the phrase “crazy long,” for starters.)

That passage, though, helps explain why I spend so much time craving bagels and smoked fish and why my brother’s favorite two words are “whitefish salad.” We are generations away from the original culture that required the smoking of fish for survival—there’s plenty of fresh fish to be had here in New York and in Boca Raton. Why do we still crave the smoked stuff? Is it in our genes?

I know non-Jews enjoy their “smoked salmon” but would non-Jews enjoy the sandwich I ordered when I sat down at a table along Barney Greengrass’s back wall and asked for what Philip Roth asks for at the end of his book: “The chopped-cherring salad on a lightly toasted onion bagel. Tomato on the side. And bring me a glass of orange juice.”

Ok, that’s not exactly how I asked for it. I just said “with tomato” but you get the idea. And here it is:

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I’ve never had chopped herring salad before. My family was a lox-spread/whitefish salad exclusive family. I saw my dad eat pickled herring once in my childhood: it came in a white cream sauce that made me gag just looking at it.

But as you can see in the sandwich above, chopped herring salad looks, on the surface, just like any other chopped fish salad–it could be tuna, it could be whitefish. But the taste! Wow the taste. How to describe? The shocking thing about it, at first, is that it’s sweet. There’s a real sweetness there and then a tanginess–a mix of sugar and vinegar that’s unusual to encounter with fish. The texture is smooth and the tomato gives a nice tart edge to the experience, all balanced by the softness of the bagel. It’s a cultural experience on a plate: Proust had his madeline, and we Jews have chopped herring. What are you gonna do? [Here I give a Jewish shrug and exit to "Anatevka" from "Fiddler on the Roof."]

Categories: Manhattan, New York, Restaurant Reviews, Upper West Side

  • http://makingfoodeatingfood.blogspot.com/ iamchanelle

    the bagel….the bagel! i cannot get over how good the bagel looks.

    YUM.

  • http://www.ohheygreat.com/leah Leah

    Moments like this are when I really, really, really want to live somewhere other than Orange County. I mean, I feel this way pretty regularly, but a post like this is an extra helping of get-me-the-hell-out-of-here.

  • http://www.silverbrowonfood.com Silverbrow

    Roth and chopped herring. Can a blog post come any closer to perfection?

  • http://www.rosas-yummy-yums.blogspot.com Rosa

    This bagel seems to be very yummy! The chopped herring filling would interest me…

  • http://www.madlibrarian.net Eli

    Awww, heck. Now you’ve given me a craving, and I don’t know if I can satisfy it in Germany (Munich, to be exact). Thanks a lot, Adam …

  • Sharon

    While you were away at Barney Greengrass, Lolita was at your computer sending email to a certain French candy and vegetable admirer.

    She complained about your cat savvy and had nothing good to say about your choice in TV cooking shows.

    You may want to investigate this. :)

  • Jenni

    Adam, how do you eat that? Am I the only one who finds herring suspect?

  • Amy K

    My (somewhat Jewish) father’s (actually Jewish) girlfriend eats herring in cream sauce. It’s sold in 1/4 lb portions at the neighborhood (Japanese-owned) market.

  • AdamH

    I love herring in cream sauce! It’s great stuff.

    I understand your genetic Jewish food craving. A new Jewish deli opened near me and the first thing I had there was a chopped liver sandwich. I’d never had chopped liver before, but since I like pate, how bad could it be? It was delicious and I’m becoming addicted.

  • http://blogblogbaby.blogspot.com deanna

    I swear, I’m pretty sure my (jewish) parents maintain their Costco membership just to ensure that their household supply of pickled herring never runs out.

    Recently, I went to a perfectly normal restaurant for lunch and actually ordered cabbage rolls for lunch. No matter how much bacon I eat or how fervently i ignore religion, i just can’t get away from the weirdo jewish foods.

  • simona

    Deanna, why weirdo ? What do you mean by a “normal ” restaurant? Is jewish food any “weirdo-er” than , for example fresh weeds salad, or raw fish “sashimi”, fried locusts or unskinned fried snake? Or just plain stinking french cheese ( which I adore)?

    And what have cabbage rolls in common with Jewish religion? It’s a balkan dish, you find it in Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania ( actually , as a romanian, I know it as one of the national romanian dishes,) as well as in Poland and parts of Germany. Maybe a little less fervour in ignoring religion, might actually enable you to really look into the variety of Jewish cuisines ( no Iraqi Jew eats stuffed cabbage..) , if food is your hobby. By the way, I love bacon,seafood and a good pork cutlet. It’s not how much bacon one eats which defines one, his/her choice of words do.

  • http://www.somethingclever.net Devlyn

    Most of the kosher places in the US were started by Jews of Ashkenazi heritage, so includes pretty much kosher spins on German/Polish/Eastern European food.

    Thanks for the fantastic photo. I’m totally wanting some now. Can you give directions? I’m going to be in the city in a month and a half and would love to have one of these for myself.

  • Adam

    I waited on Phillip Roth at Greengrass dozens of times and he’s amazing. He loves to chat and joke around. When the room was empty, he always preferred to sit in the back corner with a friend. I’d say, “Why don’t you take a big table?” He’d say, “Because we like to be bad.” I miss seeing him as I don’t work there anymore. He didn’t (and doesn’t) eat the chopped herring at Greengrass (although it is very good there). He likes Nova/cream cheese/tomato on an onion bagel.

  • David

    Since I’ve moved to Georgia one of the things I miss the most is chopped herring salad. We can get fairly good smoked salmon (Actually the best I’ve ever had is in Lubec Maine) but I do not know where I can get chopped herring. I will have some again next time I am in New York.

  • steve

    The herring salad doesn’t really do it for me, but give me whitefish salad in its place on an onion bagel, and I am in heaven.

    Don’t know what

    Simona from Romania is talking about, but no kosher place is going to serve bacon or seafood (shellfish) no matter where you are (and this includes Jewish establishments in Italy, Spain, Morocco, as well as those from an Ashkenazi heritage in Eastern Europe, etc.)

  • robert gittess

    barney greengrass is my favorite deli in new york……have been eating there for years…….

    try the chocholate babka next time

  • Denise

    I have a recipe for chopped herring if anyone is interested. We ate it all the time in S. Africa/Zimbabwe and loved it. It’s very easy to make and delicious.

  • Lallie

    Hi,

    Have read your recipe for chopped herring and would love to make it. Also lived in Zim for many years.

  • Lallie

    Hi Denise,

    Please could you email me your recipe for chopped herring.

    Many thanks,

    Lallie

  • Sid S

    I, too, would love your recipe for chopped herring.

    Thanks,

    Sid