Nothing like the smell of herring in the morning
EC: How Acme Smoked Fish Became Part of Everyone's Bagel Breakfast 
Credit: Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

The die-hards get there early—7:30 a.m., 8 at the latest. After that you have to wait in line, which can stretch out the door and down Gem Street, a small industrial block in North Brooklyn. It’s not for a secret show, or some kind of newfangled pastry hybrid. It’s to buy fish—smoked and pickled fish, to be precise—and to get it right from the source.

Acme Smoked Fish is the county’s largest producer and distributor of smoked salmon, whitefish, herring, and other salty, fishy delicacies. If you’re getting lox on a bagel with cream cheese in the U.S., there’s a good chance it came from Acme. And for 25 years the company has opened up its Brooklyn factory once a week, on Friday mornings, to sell to the public at wholesale prices.

“It’s a good deal, and it’s awesome fish,” said Henry Edelson, a twenty-six-year-old from the neighborhood and head of growth for Oh My Green!, a food delivery startup. “We’re all about the pepper belly, center cut.” I ran into Edelson together with Ally Leighton, a student, while standing in line on a recent Friday morning. “We’ll come once a month, sometimes more frequently,” Leighton said. “Usually at 7:30, when there’s no line.”

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Credit: Photo via Getty Images by Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

This time none of us got there until almost noon, so I had plenty of time to chat with other customers. Whereas the ritual once served to get rid of excess fish from that week’s smoke, and drew a handful of buyers from the neighborhood’s Polish community, “Fish Friday” now attracts around 600 people over the course of a morning. And the crowd just keeps growing.

Carla Nager, a woman from Edgewater, New Jersey, was at Fish Friday for the first time. She came with her son, who lives around the corner. “It’s a New York experience, it really is,” she said. “It’s not exactly Soup Nazi-ish, but you’ve got to get up there and know what you’re doing.”

What is it about smoked fish that brings people out to this corner of Brooklyn so early in the morning, and why are there so many of them? To find out, I returned to Acme the following week to talk to Adam Caslow, a 33-year-old vice president of the company and the fourth generation of his family to go into the smoked fish business.

Dressed in light blue slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt emblazoned with blue illustrations of fish, Caslow gave me a pair of rubber boots, a work smock, and a hair net, and led me through huge rooms filled with tanks of 20-pound salmon wet-curing in a salt-and-sugar brine, trays of three-foot-long fillets laid out for dry-curing, and room-sized brick smokers for hot and cold smoking. There was a room just for slicers, and a machine used for scaling fish that looked like it would do vicious things if you got a hand caught in it. In the street Acme trucks idled, waiting to take the day’s production all over the Northeast.

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Credit: Photo via Getty Images by Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

Back in his office, at a small round conference table, Caslow talked to me about his family’s company, and about the unexpected surge in the smoked fish business. When he was a kid, he said, he would come to Fish Friday with his father and pick out herrings from a barrel for Polish ladies. Now the neighborhood has changed and there are no more herring barrels. He worries about the wait, and about making loyal customers stand in line. “But it’s an experience that we like to put on,” he said. “You can’t get them any fresher than at Fish Friday.”

Acme got its start over 100 years ago, in 1906, when Harry Brownstein, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, started buying fish from local smokehouses and selling them to “appetizing” stores around the city. In 1937 he started his own company in Brownsville, and was joined a year later by another “smoked fish jobber,” Rubin Caslow. A few years later Caslow married Brownstein’s daughter, Charlotte, thus cementing a smoked fish dynasty.

By 1954 the company—named Acme by Caslow in an effort to be first in the phone book—had moved to a space in Greenpoint owned by a funeral parlor, and in 1975 expanded into an adjacent 80,000-square-foot location previously owned by the Williamsburg Steel company. Rubin Caslow died in 2007, but the company continues to be operated by the Caslow family, including Rubin’s sons, and Eric and Robert, and his grandsons, David and Adam.

For a company that produces an old-fashioned product, Acme has experienced surprising growth in recent years. From processing around seven million pounds of fish annually in 2007, it now produces almost 12 million, and has opened up new operations in Pompano, Florida, and Wilmington, North Carolina, as well as a product sourcing operation in Chile. Its fish are sold in supermarkets like Whole Foods and Costco, and it supplies many of the iconic New York City purveyors of smoked and pickled delicacies, including Zabar’s, Russ & Daughters, and Barney Greengrass. When you get lox on a bagel in New York, chances are that the fish came from Acme.

“We’ve seen smoked fish becoming more a part of the plate.... What is old is now new again,” Caslow said. “Predominantly it’s a Jewish ethnic food, but I think that’s changing—it’s a New York food.”

For Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a food writer and co-author of the forthcoming book The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, the popularity of lox and herring has to do with a broad resurgence of ethnic foods as symbols of cultural authenticity.

“I think it’s just our generation coming of age and looking inwards and backwards and these foods play a special role,” he said. “It’s a way for young people to explore their heritage. And for people for whom these foods were part of their upbringing, it becomes a cultural marker for them. It really is an expression of their identity.”

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Credit: Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

In New York, that trend has seen the proliferation of restaurants like Russ & Daughter’s Café, Sadelle’s, and Black Seed Bagels, all of which have opened in the past two years. Such operations not only get their fish from Acme, but have partnered with the company on specialty products. On the day I went to Fish Friday, Dianne Daoheung, partner and executive chef of Black Seed, was working a table on the sidewalk, giving out samples of a beet-cured lox to customers waiting to get in.

As the line progressed, we went from the sidewalk into a large garage filled with pallets and forklifts, and workers wearing rubber boots and hairnets who shuffled in and out. Finally we went through a plastic curtain into a large refrigerated room, where nearly all of Acme’s wares were available: boxes of whole smoked trout, sable, and whiting; a cart loaded with jars of pickled herring; stacks of packaged whitefish salad, and of course several varieties of smoked salmon. A tall man in a beard net yelled, “Next!” to keep the line moving forward.

It was going to be a while before I got back to my own refrigerator, so I passed on the salmon and instead bought two large jars of herring. Though I could have gotten them elsewhere, it wouldn’t have been the same as getting them right from the factory. When I finally got home it was well past breakfast time, but that didn’t matter. I cracked open a jar and enjoyed a herring breakfast for dinner, complete with rye bread, cream cheese, and cucumber slices. But next time I go to Fish Friday I’ll be sure to get there early—and to bring a very large cooler.