When researching his first book on American culinary traditions, David Page said one experience stands out: the chapter on bagels and smoked salmon.
“I was able to hang out at Russ & Daughters on New York’s Lower East Side, which has been a mouth-watering store for over a century,” Page told the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 21. “And where I was welcomed to the point where I was allowed to go behind the counter with a guy who had been cutting smoked salmon for about 40 years and try it myself. And of course, I made a bunch of leftover lox. But it was just bliss. I mean, my paternal grandparents lived on the Lower East Side. So I spent a lot of time in that area when I was child.
Page is the author of “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories Behind America’s Favorite Meals.” As owner of Page Productions, he was also the creator and executive producer of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” featuring Guy Fieri on the Food Network.
Page will speak March 3 at the Mandel JCC during the first in-person event of the 22nd annual Cleveland Jewish Book Festival. Cuyahoga County Public Library director Ron Block, who serves on the board of the Cleveland Independent Restaurants Association and is a judge for the James Beard Cookbook Awards, will moderate.
Page said it wasn’t just standing behind the counter that made the experience of being at Russ & Daughters memorable.
“Writing, to a large extent, is about telling the stories of personalities and people,” he said. “And the people I found online at Russ & Daughters were just outstanding, including a former heavyweight boxer who told phenomenal stories about getting into the boxing game as a youngster, where he hung out with the Jewish mobsters who he said ran boxing at the time, and they would bring appetizers and bagels and sit and eat and gossip.
Plus, he said, he visited Acme Smoked Fish as part of his research for the lox and bagels chapter.
“I’ve been to their Brooklyn facility, which isn’t their biggest anymore,” Page said, adding that Acme Smoked Fish is the biggest lox supplier in the country to the best of his knowledge. “They do most of their packaging in the Carolinas, I think in North Carolina, but they still produce some of their products there, including the products they make for the absolute top of appetizing stores that have high standards. very specific. for what they want in smoked fish, including Russ & Daughters, Barney Greengrass, Zabar’s. So that was pretty cool.
Page called smoked salmon, bagel and cream cheese his “death row” meal. Later in the interview, however, he admitted that his penchant for bialy actually outweighs his love for bagels.
“I doubt most prisons can get me a bialy,” he said.
Page also has a few favorites in the Eastern European kosher culinary tradition: veal trotters in jelly, and “I’ve never been a fan of the tongue,” he said.
Born in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, NY, Page grew up in Greenfeld, Mass., where his father was the dean of faculty at the local community college. He chose to go to Mount Hermon, (later Northfield Mount Hermon in Gill, Mass.) because he had his own radio station. His bar mitzvah was at Temple Israel in Greenfield, where he bucked tradition and wrote his own speech rather than reading the one the rabbi provided.
Page said he enjoyed working on the book because it used his skills as an investigative reporter and storyteller.
“At some point, I think every producer says, ‘God, I would just like to write a book,'” he said. “Plus, I’ve been a shapeshifter throughout my career. You know you’re the last thing you were in this business. So I was a local TV reporter, an investigative reporter, and I was a national reporter for NBC, and then I was an international reporter. Then when I came back, I was a morning show guy, and I became a food guy. I get itchy every few years to do something new. And it just seemed like the right time to write a book.
While the book explores the history of iconic foods in American culture, most of these foods have their roots on other shores. Page said he hopes his book inspires readers to eat intentionally and well.
“I just mean real authentic food,” he said. “You know, buy a chicken and roast it. Know that there is a story to food. What I discovered while working abroad is that food is the gateway to cultures. It tells you a lot about people. That says a lot about societies. Look for real food, especially when you’re going somewhere. What are they eating there? What’s local there? »
Page said her upcoming book, which explores food culture on the go, has the working title “Eating While Standing.”
There’s another message Page hopes his readers will pick up from “Food Americana.”
“Especially in a time when much of America is anti-immigrant these days,” Page said, “I hope this book reinforces the extent to which the old melting pot analogy is true. And the food is one of the many wonderful ways immigrants have brought great things to our country.