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Lox and Cream Cheese

Cartoon sketch of a fisherman standing waist-deep in water with a bagel caught on his line. Illustration by Earle Levenstein.

I don't remember when Lox became Nova Scotia salmon.

Growing up in New York, all I knew was Lox, with cream cheese on a bagel; or in a salad, with about a pound of cream cheese and a bagel on the side—nobody should ever leave hungry—or with a carload of pickled herring, some smoked fish and other highly nutritious non-meat foods.

Pretty much always—that's nearly in New York—a bagel was part of the lox deal. Why? It was never discussed. One of those "That's the way it is."

Interestingly—I'd say "oddly" but I'd get strange looks—if it was in a deli that served hot dogs, corned beef, pastrami, tongue, maybe brisket; all those smoked or potted or steamed or cured or whatever truly substantial meats—I mean, substantial, no holds barred—bagels were never involved. No questions. You just never would have a pastrami lean with Russian dressing on a bagel. I doubt they'd ever serve it to you even if you asked.

I'm reminded of the time—true, no joke—when I was having lunch in the Stage Deli and some guy walked in and up to the counter and looked at the menu on the wall and down at the tons of different steaming meats behind the glass and then asked the waiting sandwich-maker for baloney on white bread with mayo and the counterman just looked at him, shook his head and asked, "Why did you come in here?"

Anyway, rye bread in general or one of those timeless hotdog buns were the rule. That's just the way it was. Everything in its place. Tradition. Habit. Whatever.

On the other hand, in a dairy restaurant, pickled herring or smoked fish or any of those, was served with rye bread or rolls or maybe pumpernickel. If you asked for a hotdog roll with your sturgeon I think they'd just laugh and think you were making a good joke.

But back to Nova Scotia.

I was trying to remember when lox disappeared.

What I think now is that it's partly geographical—New York vs. the rest of the fifty states—and partly tradition, which is fading, as we know, and another part cultural: travel, people flying increasingly to countries all over the world where just about anything we eat is called by a different name.

Sort of like asking for chicken chow mein in almost any Chinese restaurant. Gone. I mean it was an American invention anyway, a joke to anyone from Asia.

As for lox; I think it hung on in New York—and in some places still does—longer than anywhere else; and since I was born and lived in NYC most of my life, when I'd habitually order lox I wasn't looked at like some rube. Then smoked salmon sneaked in and pretty soon Novie--Nova Scotia smoked salmon—and gravlax were waiting for me in Europe and so forth and so on, into the new world, where local words are pretty much out the window.

Now, whatever the name or names on the menu of a restaurant here or most anywhere, if it's a foreign language, it'll be described by the server, or in a takeout place I can just point at that something that looks familiar.

What's in a word? Shakespeare says.

Easy for you to say, I answer, tears running down my cheeks.

Lox, I whisper. It's all about lox.

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