“The Dutch think that’s crazy – ‘Pickled herring with cream sauce!? Heresy!’ But that’s how we eat it. I get at least a Dutchman a day in here telling me I’m crazy for serving cream sauce with pickled herring.” –Peter Shelsky
‘Appetizing’ is a vestige of one of the great culinary traditions of New York – Eastern European Jewish food. While its counterpart, Deli, has carved out a firm foothold, appetizing has drifted into the shadows of culinary consciousness.
While deli is all about meats, appetizing is all smoked and cured fish and dairy. The two were traditionally kept separate to honor the dictates of Jewish kashrut dietary laws. Appetizing shops once thrived in neighborhoods citywide. Now, only a handful still remain.
Peter Shelsky, a native New Yorker, grew up on appetizing and he’s doing his part to bring it back to Brooklyn. After becoming frustrated by having to trek into Manhattan for every smoked fish fix, he opened Shelsky’s Smoked Fish & Appetizing on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens in June.
We stopped by to learn more about the food and the tradition of appetizing.
So Peter, how did you end up opening a smoked fish shop in Carroll Gardens?
I grew up in Manhattan – on the Upper East Side. I grew up a Jew, so eating this stuff was our weekend habit. My grandmother lived on the Lower East Side, so we’d go down to pick her up and we’d pick up bagels and bialy’s at Kossar’s when we were down there. Then we’d go usually go to the Upper West Side to Zabar’s to get smoked fish. Now there’s Sable’s on the Upper East Side, but that wasn’t there yet when I was a kid, so we had to go to the West Side.
This smoked fish, pickled fish, the bagels, bialys…it’s the comfort food that I grew up eating.
Fast forward to now – I’m a trained chef. I’ve worked in restaurants in the city. I cooked at Wallse, an Austrian restaurant in the West Village. I cooked at Eleven Madison years ago. I worked at Café Sabarsky at the Neue Gallery. For the last seven years I’ve owned a catering company called Pete’s Eats. We do private cooking lessons and instructional cooking parties and that kind of thing.
I don’t think I could handle the restaurant life anymore. With a wife? With kids? Forget it.
I’ve wanted to open a shop for a long time. Around last Christmas, I had to go to Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side to buy a whole bunch of smoked fish and stuff for Christmas brunch. My wife is not Jewish, so we do Christmas. There was all this traffic going into the city. I had to wait on line for two hours at Russ & Daughters. I just thought, “This is so stupid! This should be on Smith Street. There’s a great cheese shop, a great butcher shop…we have all this great stuff right here in my neighborhood. Why can’t I get smoked fish?”
So, I did it. I realized we needed this on Smith Street, so I opened the shop.
What do you know about the history of smoked fish? Of this kind of food?
In this country we sort of think of this food as Jewish food. It’s really eastern European and Scandanavian food, but because the people who came over here from there in the early twentieth century were all Jewish, it became known as Jewish food. They’re the immigrant community that brought it here. So they’re the ones who became the smoked fish people, the gefilte fish people. But everyone eats this stuff back over there.
There aren’t many shops around specializing in smoked and cured fish. There were probably a lot more at some point?
They were all over the Lower East Side and all over Brooklyn. All over. They were called ‘appetizing’ shops. From what I understand, they started to disappear as more and more of the less religious Jews started moving out of the city. The Jews who stayed in the city were really, really religious, and this is not what they eat.
A lot of the fish that I carry is kosher, but I’m not a kosher shop and I have no interest in being a kosher shop. To be a kosher shop, it’s too much. The rules are unbelievable. I mean, you can’t open on Saturday! I’d go out of business in a week.
I got a phone call yesterday from some guy, saying, “How are you not kosher, but you call what you do Jewish food?”
I said to the guy, “Look, most Jews in New York don’t keep kosher. Plenty do, but all the ones that don’t still consider themselves Jews, and consider this Jewish food. They identify with this as their type of food. This is part of the culture. Kosher or not.”
So ‘appetizing’ – what does that mean?
So in Eastern European Jewish food, they separate everything into two categories: Deli – delicatessen, and appetizing. Deli being pastrami, smoked meats, smoked tongue, all that stuff. Deli is the meat. But not dairy. Appetizing is the fish and the dairy. But not meat. They separate them for all kinds of kosher reasons. Appetizing is all the smoked fish, pickled fish – things like pickled herring and cream sauce.
The Dutch think that’s crazy – “Pickled herring with cream sauce!? Heresy!” But that’s how we eat it.
I get at least a Dutchman a day in here telling me I’m crazy for serving cream sauce with pickled herring. They won’t touch it.
So what do you make here?
We make the salads and spreads. We make all the sandwiches, obviously. Pretty much the only thing we don’t do is smoke the fish.
Why don’t you smoke the fish?
In a shop this size, with the volume we do? Impossible. If you’re going to smoke fish, you need USDA inspection, and big smokers and all this stuff. And we don’t need to do it. There are places around here that already do a great job smoking fish. They do it as well as anyone.
We use three different smokehouses. We use Acme Smoked Fish in Greenpoint, Samaki Smoked Fish up in Port Jervis, and a smokehouse in Mamaroneck. They each have certain products that I love. I pick my favorites from each, and I have a close relationship with each of them.
What do you know about the process of smoking fish?
I actually took a tour of the Acme smokehouse a while ago. They’ve been around for like 80 years. Basically they get whole fish in. It’s cleaned, filleted, and they’re thrown into a brine. After they’re brined, they’re put in a cold-smoker – smoked around 70 degrees. So they’re raw-cured, and cold-smoked. Or they’re hot smoked.
What’s the difference between cold smoked and hot smoked? I mean other than the obvious?
In this business, ‘baked,’ ‘hot smoked’ and ‘kippered’ all mean the same thing. They’re hot smoked. The fish is basically cooked and smoked in a big hot smoky oven. It’s cooked. It’s got a firmer texture and more of a kind of intense flavor than cold-smoked.
Cold-smoked fish isn’t cooked. There’s no heat. It’s brined and cured. It’s raw. Cold smoked salmon is the kind that everyone here thinks of when they think of smoked salmon – the kind you get at any bagel place.
So the two have really different textures and flavors. We have both here.
Not everything here is smoked either. We’ve got hot and cold-smoked fish, and we’ve got cured fish too – cured but not smoked.
We’ve got this David Burke pastrami salmon that they make at Acme. I was going to do my own pastrami salmon, because I’m an everything-from-scratch sort of guy. Before I opened I was tasting all this stuff, and I tasted that, and that’s was it. Done. Why would I try to top this? It’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted!
How do they make it?
It’s just cured and it’s got a special spice mixture and marinade. No smoke. The marinade’s got salt, sugar, coriander, parsley, shallots, molasses, cayenne pepper, paprika…All kinds of stuff. It’s peppery, it lingers. It’s wonderful. It’s just fantastic.
I like to play with and put it on sandwiches. Like the Great Gatsby – we debuted it this weekend – it’s the pastrami salmon, honey mustard and horseradish cream cheese on salted caraway stick bread. It’s awesome.
How familiar are your customers with this kind of food? Do you find yourself doing a lot of coaching in here?
There are a lot of people who come in and know what they want. If I think they’ll be open to tasting something different, I’ll give them a taste of something different. And then every once in a while I get someone who really knows nothing.
Like a guy who came in just an hour ago. He knew nothing about this stuff, but he wanted to know all about it. And I love that. I talked to him for 20 minutes and sent him home with a few things to try.
A couple of weeks after I first opened, this local Italian guy comes in and goes, “Yo! You got halibut?”
I was like, “No, we’re actually not a fish store, we’re an ‘appetizing’ store,” and I explained the whole concept to him. He had never heard of this stuff.
He was like, “I want to get some stuff for my family for dinner.” He told me how much he wanted to spend. So I explained what I was giving him – I gave him a nice selection of different things – and he’s been back a bunch of times. He loves it! Those old-school Italians usually don’t eat anything other than Italian food, so I thought that was really cool.
Are there specific types of fish you tend to get with this kind of cuisine?
Yes. There’s whitefish – which is an actual kind of fish. There’s chubbs, which are a white fish, but not a ‘whitefish.’ They’re a smallish freshwater fish. We get them here from the Great Lakes. In Europe they’re from the rivers. They’re outstanding. The thing that all the old Jews ask for with chubb…they say, “Make sure you give me a juicy one!”
And you can squeeze them – they feel juicy. When you get a nice rich one, they’re oily and wonderful.
People who see them, they ask, “What should I do with this?” I don’t know what the old timers do with them, but I can’t think of a better Sunday afternoon than bringing home a couple of juicy chubbs, opening the package up, and pouring a good beer. That’s heaven. The chubbs are salty, smoky, oily…what else could be better with a great beer? They’re perfect. The meat slides right off the bone. They’re soo good.
So what else do we have…the salmon, the herring…we have bluefish and trout which aren’t necessarily traditional, but have become part of it. We have sturgeon, which cannot under any circumstances be kosher because they’re bottom feeders, they don’t have scales…there are a bunch of reasons why it can’t be kosher. But you know what? Fine. More for us. Because it is the best, fattiest, most flavorful thing. It’s pricey, but it’s phenomenal.
Tell me about some of the other ‘appetizing’ specialties.
Yeah. So right here we’ve got schmaltzed herring fillets. That’s salted herring fillets in oil. Now traditionally, schmaltzed means you’re using chicken fat. Something that’s cooked in chicken fat, or served in chicken fat. But no one does that anymore with the herring fillets. So they’re brined with onions, white pepper and black pepper, and served in oil. It’s not my favorite thing, to be honest. But it’s got its fans. A lot of people love it.
Chicken fat is awesome. We fry our potato latkes in chicken fat.
So then we have kippered herring too –hot-smoked herring. We’ve got two kinds. One is almost like jerky – pretty salty,chewy. We’ve also got more traditional kippers, which are a little less salty.
I brought some kippers home the other day. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet with some new potatoes, cherry tomatoes and peppers. Just put two poached eggs on top of the whole thing, and it was quite tasty.
What else? We’ve got house-pickled lox. We start with lox bellies, which tend to be really salty. They’re salted salmon bellies. We desalinate it in a fresh water bath for a few days, then pickle it.
People mistakenly think the word lox means all smoked salmon. It’s actually a very specific thing. It’s salt-cured salmon. It’s not smoked. And it’s ridiculously salty. I’ve found that generally the only people who eat real lox are in their eighties or are people who grew up eating it. If you didn’t grow up eating it, I don’t think it would be easy to like because it’s so salty.
So we use traditional lox, but we take a lot of the salt out, and we pickle it in our own vinegar mixture. I like it a lot better that way.
We also have matjes herring – a young, spiced, pickled herring. It’s pickled in a vinegar sauce that’s colored with beet root powder and spiced with things like allspice. It’s kind of a sweet-salty-sour flavor. Great on pumpernickel bread with cream cheese. That’s pretty much how you want to eat it. It’s a traditional northern European food. The Dutch, Germans, Russians, Scandinavians - they all make their own versions of it.
How do the whole smoked fish sell? The chubb and trout?
Some people are scared of them, but in this neighborhood? Bunch of food people. For the most part, everyone’s into it. The whitefish make a really impressive centerpiece on a platter…And I tell people what to do with them, so I think that makes it easier. The meat slides right off the bone. It’s really easy to eat them. They’re great on their own, or great on a bialy with cream cheese.
Tell us about the sandwiches.
We’ve got a whole bunch of sandwiches.
The ‘Doctor Goldstein’ came about a few years ago when I was catering a Passover seder. It was between courses and I was starving, so I looked around the kitchen and saw a bunch of things laying around, and threw together a sandwich. It’s duck fat-laced chopped liver with apple horseradish sauce. We serve it between two schmaltz-fried potato latkes. It’s like the Jewish version of the KFC Double Down.
My other favorites? The ‘Peter Shelsky ‘– that was my childhood concoction. My favorite sandwich as a kid. It’s Gaspe nova, sable, and pickled herring with cream sauce, onion, and scallion cream cheese on a bagel or bialy.
Right now, my favorite one on the menu is the Brooklyn Transplant. It’s fatty kippered salmon with apple horseradish sauce, cream cheese and pickled herring salad on Pumpernickel. That’s a fantastic sandwich.
What about the bagels?
I still drive in every morning to Kossar’s on the Lower East Side for bagels and bialys. The whole reason I opened this place was so I wouldn’t have to drive into Manhattan to get this stuff, but here I am, now I drive in every day.
I do it because no one makes a better bagel or bialy than Kossar’s. They’ve been open for like 60 years. There are so few good bagels available today. For some reason they’ve become fluffy and soft. As a born and raised New Yorker, I say a bagel should make your jaw hurt. It should be dense and chewy. That’s what a real bagel is. Kossar’s makes them in that tradition. Their bialys are the best too.
The only problem is that they’re closed on Saturday for Shabbat. So I have to buy a double order on Fridays and freeze the bagels for Saturday. It’s not ideal. But if you give them a quick toast, they’re still the best.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not eating smoked fish?
My favorite place to eat is Yun Nan Flavor Snack in Sunset Park. The cold spicy noodles are insane. And the rice noodles with crispy meat sauce – made with pig intestine? Like heaven.
I’m a Chinese food fanatic. I’ll drive all over Queens to find the best stuff out there. Nothing makes me happier than walking around any Chinatown. Anywhere. It’s the only thing I like going to Manhattan for anymore, really.
Other than that, I’m a big Prime Meats fan. The burger is fantastic. People always say, “If you were on death row, what would you pick for your last meal?” For me, it’s a burger and fries. Hands down.
And Mile End. It’s just a few blocks away. I dropped in there for a smoked meat sandwich a few weeks ago. Unbelievable.
Any surprises since you opened a few months ago?
As it turns out, I love retail! I love having this place. I love talking to people. I’m a natural-born schmoozer, so this works really well for me. I like that what I’m selling is stuff that I really enjoy myself.
When I have something here that I don’t particularly like but I have to stock, I leave it to the staff to sell it. For instance, we stock this double-cured Irish salmon. It’s just not my thing. But one of the girls who works here loves it, and she can tell you why. So she handles that. I like that I can sell things and be honest, because I really like what I’m selling.
Shelsky’s Smoked Fish & Appetizing is located at 251 Smith Street, between Douglass and Degraw, in Carroll Gardens. Stop by for a juicy chubb.