Amy Eddings is the local host of “All Things Considered,” which airs from 4 PM until 8 PM weekdays. She started hosting in 2004, after long-time host JoAnn Allen left for the West Coast. Before ATC, Amy was a reporter. Her favorite topics were--and still are--garbage and recycling, which she still reports on whenever she can get out of the studio.
Amy Eddings' Food for Thought: Drinking a Shrub and Other NY Moments
Friday, April 15, 2011
"Amy, do you like beets?"
I was leaning against the collarbone-high counter at Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side on a recent Saturday, waiting as Niki Russ Federman sliced a quarter pound of grav lox for me. She had paused in her work to lift a small plastic bottle of pink liquid from a silver bowl on the countertop.
"Sure, I like beets," I told her.
"Try this," she said. "Make sure it's nice and cold."
And so began my addiction to Russ and Daughters' beet and lemon shrub.
Yes, you read me right. The drink is called a shrub. It's a vinegar-based cordial that was apparently popular in colonial times. There are alcoholic shrubs and non-alcoholic ones, made with fruit syrups.
"Shrubs pre-dated carbonated soft drinks," Niki told me later over the phone. I had called her to gush about how good the drink was, and to ask her how they made it.
It turns out the beet and lemon shrub was a happy accident.
"We make a really good, fresh-squeezed lemonade," she said. "We thought it would be fun to add color by adding beet juice."
She said one of her staff members, Kyra, did just that, but used the vinegar juice from pickled beets.
Russ Federman — who has an amazing knowledge of American food ways — realized that Kyra had unknowingly made a shrub. A really refreshing one.
"Once we hit on that, we started playing with proportions, and started to work out a recipe."
The old-time drink has caught on. It was featured in New York magazine's "Best of New York" issue a few weeks ago: "People are almost addicted to it. They want to buy gallons of it, and are upset when we run out."
Niki said the concoction is "my Gatorade."
"Beets are considered a super-antioxidant," she said. "Marathon runners drink beet juice because it supposedly increases stamina by 60 percent."
While at the store, I also picked up two types of pickled herring to sample: one in curry sauce and one in a sauce of mustard and dill. I also ordered Scottish salmon (smoked) to compare to the grav lox (salt-cured) that Niki was slicing for me. She gave me a sample of the Scottish salmon on a cracker with a smear of cream cheese and two little capers. (I had interviewed Niki about capers for another Last Chance Foods blog.) She handed another fully-loaded cracker to a man standing nearby, Steve, whom she introduced to me.
"Steve and his wife just got back from a month in Southeast Asia," Niki added to get the conversation going. We chatted about his trip.
I looked around. About 15 people were standing patiently in the little space between the massive appetizing counter, and another one offering sweets like babka, rugelach, halvah, jelly rings and macaroons. There was a small, athletic-looking middle-aged woman ordering herring: "My husband likes it, but I've never had the nerve to try it," she was telling the man behind the counter.
Three 20-something young ladies were waiting in a cluster for their whitefish on a bagel. A guy in a suit jacket and fedora was eyeing the horseradish cream cheese.
"Where our customers were once 95 percent Jewish, now they're 95 percent all over the map," said Russ Federman.
Despite the long line and cramped conditions, the feeling in the 97-year-old Lower East Side store was relaxed, even cheerful. I looked at the framed photographs of Niki's relatives mounted high on the walls and the little black-and-white ceramic tiles on the floor. I listened to the snippets of conversations going on around me:
"A quarter pound, please."
"How is that prepared?"
"Do you want a slice of red onion with that?"
"How long have you worked here?"
"My grandmother used to love this."
"We drive in from Brooklyn every weekend."
"Just the other day, when I was on the counter, I thought, 'This is so fun!'" said Niki. "Because you get to meet New York."
She said well meaning customers have suggested she and her co-owner and cousin, Josh Russ Tupper, pipe in music to entertain customers while they wait. She refuses to do so, saying the conversations are entertainment enough.
By the end of the visit, package in hand, I felt energized, charged with that feeling that I used to get when I was new to New York, and would glimpse the skyline from I-80 driving back from a visit to my parents in Cleveland. That little thrill of living here, and of those chance encounters with the people and places that make it special, vibrant, and yours.
I lift a glass of shrub to food institutions like Russ and Daughters and to good service, to tradition, to Passover and Holy Week and to New York City.