She’s known as the “queen of dissent,” a “judicial rock star” and the Notorious R.B.G.
But Brooklyn-born U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who turns 85 on March 15 and is profiled in a documentary that will be released this May, is also a consummate foodie.
“Although RBG is thin, she’s a foodie and an enthusiastic eater,” says filmmaker Julie Cohen, co-director of the “RBG” doc that had its Sundance premiere in January. “We had a dinner with her at Sundance and after a substantial meal, she ate a big dessert with verve!”
The Columbia Law School graduate does, however, have a reputation for eating her large portions at painstakingly slow speeds.
In a film clip left on the cutting room floor, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who has known Ginsburg as a friend and subject since the 1970s, describes her dining habits as “a slow motion version of eating, the ultimate ladylike eating. However, it all disappears. All of it. Every last lick of it. . . . She eats real food and plenty of it.”
With Ginsburg’s Flatbush, Brooklyn, roots and her years working as a clerk at the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and as a Columbia law professor, the associate justice of the Supreme Court has done her fair share of grazing in New York.
We have rounded up some of her favorite eats around town:
Scottish smoked salmon and caviar from Russ & Daughters
It was Ginsburg’s mother, Celia Bader, who introduced her to the appetizing goods at Russ & Daughters. (The legendary shop for Jewish specialty foods — in particular, smoked fish — sits on a Lower East Side block not far from Bader’s childhood home in the tenements.) The Notorious R.B.G. favors the famed lox emporium’s Scottish smoked salmon and the caviar, she says in “Sturgeon Queens,” an earlier documentary by Cohen chronicling the history of the fourth-generation family business.
Can she describe what it tastes like? Cohen asks from off-screen.
“It’s so delicious I can’t, I wish could describe . . . ” Ginsburg begins. “It’s not oily and it’s not salty, it’s just delicious.” And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the store selling it claims to be the first in the United States to add “& Daughters,” after founder Joel Russ’ three full-time partners, to its name.
“Even before I heard the word feminism, it made me happy to see that this was an enterprise where the daughters counted just like sons counted. That was most uncommon in those days,” Ginsburg says on camera.
She still places orders with Russ & Daughters for shipment to her home in Washington D.C., when she throws parties, Cohen tells us.
“As a D.C. suburban native now living in Brooklyn, I can vouch for the fact that there’s no lox or pickled herring in the D.C. area that can match,” the filmmaker says.
Chinese takeout in Flatbush
It isn’t so much the taste as the smell of Chinese food that has nostalgic significance for the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsburg’s mother, a voracious reader, took her daughter on frequent trips to the Kings Highway branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, sited for several years as of 1940 in a cramped, rented space above a Chinese restaurant. Tight quarters and that rather unusual location (at 1653 E. 14th St.) made it “‘a serious handicap’ to decent library service for the community,” then-chief librarian Dr. Milton J. Ferguson was quoted by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as saying in 1946. Moreover, the spot was “cold and odoriferous.” Justice Ginsburg, for one, didn’t seem to mind. “Ever since, Judge Ginsburg has said, she has associated the aroma of Chinese food with the pleasures of reading,” the The New York Times reported in ‘90s.
Old-school Italian at Scalinatella
This subterranean, high-end Italian spot on the Upper East Side is known to attract “well-heeled” diners with its Capri-style cuisine, according to Zagat. Members of the “in crowd” to make appearances at the Scalinatella grotto include Justice Ginsburg and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, per the review site The Infatuation, which calls the restaurant’s fare “overpriced” and taste-wise just “fine.” We wonder if it’s the “unreal” (as one Yelper called it) black truffle pappardelle, priced at $120 a half-order, that keeps RBG coming back.
Her husband’s exceptional cooking in their apartment
RBG didn’t have to stray far from her New York City home for a tasty meal. Early in their marriage, the Ginsburgs, who met as students at Cornell University, learned who among them was the better cook. “To the eternal appreciation of our food-loving children . . . Marty made the kitchen his domain and became chef supreme in our home,” Justice Ginsburg recalls in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, of her household’s atypical division of domestic labor. (Even her stunted efforts in the kitchen may have scarred her daughter, Jane, and son, James; in “RBG,” the documentary Cohen co-directed with Betsy West, James says, “To this day I still can’t eat swordfish after what she did to it.”)
Marty, a tax lawyer, was said to have quite the cooking chops for an amateur. During his stint in the Army, the former chemistry major worked his way through The Escoffier Cookbook, a highly regarded guide to French cooking the couple had received as a wedding gift. Over the years — as the couple migrated from Oklahoma to Boston for Harvard Law School to New York for Marty’s work to D.C. for Ruth’s career — his repertoire in the kitchen would extend to Indian, Italian and Asian cuisine. He would bake cakes for his wife’s law clerks’ birthday parties and cook for dinner parties the two hosted regularly at their Watergate apartment.
After Marty passed away in 2010, he left behind a collection of meticulously written recipes that the Supreme Court Historical Society published as a book titled Chef Supreme. Want a taste of his cooking? You can order the tome here and whip up one of his dishes at home.