“Overwhelming” and “unexpected” is how smoked-fishmonger turned writer Mark Russ Federman describes the reaction to his recently published memoir, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built.
Russ & Daughters, for those of you who weren’t lucky enough to grow up within Sunday-morning driving distance of its pink-and-green neon sign on the Lower East Side, is an “appetizing” store, a family business nearly 100 years old, still thriving under the ownership of the great-granddaughter and great-grandnephew of the original founder, Joel Russ.
Wait, what’s an “appetizing” store, you ask? Let’s start with the smell.
“Push open the door at Russ & Daughters and the first thing to hit you is the store’s unique aroma. It’s a combination of smokiness from whitefish, salmon, sturgeon,and sable; the brininess of herrings and pickles; the yeastiness of freshly baked bagels and bialys, and the sweetness of rugelach, babka, chocolates, and halvah. How I wish I could bottle that singular scent–smoky, briny, yeasty and sweet.”
As Russ Federman’s description above shows, the “appetizing” store is a particularly Jewish-American category of business, specializing in smoked fish and dairy products. It arose out of kosher dietary laws, which forbid the mixing of milk and meat at the same meal or, indeed, in the same shop. So, when it came to prepared foods, the delicatessen, or deli, sold pastrami, corned beef, tongue, salami, chopped liver, chicken soup, and more, while the “appetizing” store stocked smoked and cured fish in all its forms, from pickled herring to smoked salmon, along with the dairy to serve with it: cheese and cream cheese, plus pickles, sauerkraut, and often bagels, bialys, candies, rugelach, chocolates, and dried fruit, too.
Appetizing stores–and Jewish bakeries, delis, restaurants, shops, and Yiddish theaters–flourished in New York City’s Lower East Side, where Jews from Russia, Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe came fleeing persecution, seeking religious freedom or just looking, like so many other immigrants then and now, for economic opportunity and a better life for themselves and their children.
The story that Russ Federman tells, of how his grandfather Joel Russ made it to the Lower East Side from a tiny village in Poland, and, with business savvy and a whole lot of grinding, day in-day out hard work, managed to go from selling herring from a barrel on the street to launching a store that remains a beloved New York landmark some 100 years later, is a classic American immigrant’s tale. But it also brings to life the lost Jewish world of the Lower East Side. My great-grandfather, also born in Poland, was a baker in the neighborhood; my grandmother, who came here as a child in the early 1900s, had stories of delivering hot rolls in a horse-drawn cart through the pushcarts crowding the tenement-lined streets.
That Joel Russ’s three daughters Anne, Hattie, and Ida would work in the family business went without saying. As Russ Federman tells it, the family motto became “Vi nempt men parnosa?” a Yiddish phrase he translates as “From where do we take our living?” The family’s living came from the shop, and so the family, all of it, worked hard to make the shop successful.
But Joel Russ also recognized that his three smiling, pretty daughters were a draw that lured customers as much as a good price on schmaltz herring, and he turned the name of the business into Russ & Daughters. Son-in-laws were set up behind the counter, too, but the third generation, including Mark, weren’t supposed to be shopkeepers. For them, the goal was college and a profession–a doctor, a lawyer, not a herring-seller.
As expected, Russ Federman went to law school, passed the bar, and started practicing–only to discover that he wasn’t happy practicing with a big uptown law firm. After years of being pressed into work at the shop during every school vacation and holiday, he came back to the shop in 1978 to learn the business and take some of the pressure off his aging parents. As he writes,
“My plan was to help them run the store part-time and practice law part-time. What was I smoking? The first day I took up my place behind the counter was the last day I practiced law. Even though I had worked there as a kid, I had no idea what it meant to be responsible for every piece of fish, every customer, and every employee every minute of the day.”
It wasn’t easy, stepping into the shoes of “Mr. Russ,” the public face and buck-stops-here owner. The men at the smokehouses where he bought their fish were tough, making him earn their respect, even slipping bad fish into his orders to see if he could pick them out.
Even when he had retired from active duty, after 35 years on the floor, customers who saw him in the shop thought nothing of ordering him to get behind the counter and fill their requests for lox and herring. As he writes in the beginning of the book, when one bossy elderly woman, ignoring the lines of waiting customers around her, insists that he should “make her a herring”–that is, skin, bone, and fillet a smoked herring for her while she waits, even though the case is filled with ready-to-go fillets, he loses patience and pulls rank.
I went for the ultimate weapon in my arsenal. “Lady, do you know who I am? I am Mr. Russ.” I expected my pronouncement to end any further challenges.
It took less than a second for her response. “I know you. You’re not Mistar Russ. Your grandfadder vas Mistar Russ.”
After passing on the business to his daughter Niki and nephew Josh in 2009, he found himself suddenly, if gratefully, no longer Mr. Russ. “I wrote a book, basically, to give me something to do, keep me from just potchking [puttering] around. All those years, my persona was Mr. Russ, the guy behind the counter. You can get the bends, you stop too soon,” he said in a recent phone interview.
He already had a built-in platform–the shop–for selling the book. He got an agent, then a publisher, and then, he just had to write it.
“[Calvin] Bud Trillin said, ‘Listen, Mark, you stay out of my business, I’ll stay out of yours.’ So then it was a challenge,” he laughed. “Who knew that writing could be harder than retail?”
Of course, Trillin, a popular writer and longtime fan of the shop, went on to write a heartfelt introduction to the book, updating a piece he’d written about the shop back in 1974. In the early 70s, Trillin, like my own father, was taking his daughters to the shop for their first tastes of halvah, herring, kippered salmon, and pickled lox. Now, he takes his grandchildren. As Trillin writes,
“But Russ and Daughters still looks about the same as it did when I described it, around forty years ago, as refutation of the false teaching that a store that sells pickled herring cannot have character and a clean display case at the same time…I know, because I can often be found there on a Sunday morning.”
But Russ Federman didn’t just want to share whitefish-salad recipes and funny anecdotes of famous customers like Zero Mostel and Tony Bourdain. He wanted to capture his family’s own stories, research their history, and “make the Russ family proud of what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years,” especially his 92 year old mother Anne and 100 year old aunt Hattie, the two remaining original Russ daughters. “Because, for them, it was hard work and awful conditions.”
Random House sent the first two copies of the book by FedEx to his mother and aunt in Florida, where they now live. Russ Federman opened the box with them and watched as they turned the pages peppered with old family photos. “Of course, their first reaction was ‘Why did you have to say that’? But then, they were totally thrilled. They were stopping, telling their own stories,” as they went through the book. “It took 3 years, but I accomplished my mission.”
The book also details how the store went from neighbor herring purveyor to city institution, playing an essential part in the lives of its customers even as Jews left the Lower East Side, and the neighborhood sank into drug-fueled crime and squalor in the 70s and 80s, followed by artists and then ever-increasing gentrification over the past 20 years.
Even as, one by one, the old Jewish bakeries and delis closed, Russ & Daughters kept going, even after the downtown devastation of 9/11. You wanted to celebrate a bris, you ordered a smoked-fish platter. Sitting shiva after a death in the family, you ordered babka and rugalach, cookies and dried fruit for noshing. From the Yom Kippur break-fast to New Year’s Day or just another Sunday morning, any day was a occasion made better with lox, sturgeon, smoked chub, herring salad, even caviar. The trick, of course, wasn’t just the sterling quality of the fish; it was that the Russes had the “schmooze gene,” able to remember complete customer histories, not just of their tastes in sturgeon and lox but their medical histories, their foibles, and their family trees, and able to banter back and forth across the counter so that shopping there wasn’t just shopping, it was an only-in-New-York experience, even for customers who’d long since relocated to Great Neck or New Rochelle.
Now that everyone’s got a crock of kraut going in the kitchen, does Russ Federman have advice for the next generation of would-be professional salmon-smokers and pickle makers dreaming of a storefront in Oakland or Bushwick?
Forget cutesy names and logos, he tells me. “Put your own name on the door. Because if your name is on it, every product, every bag, every thing that goes through that door has your ego, your personality, your life on it. Do that for 100 years. Then you’ll be a success.”
Beet, Apple, and Herring Salad
Swedish mustard, which you can find at IKEA, has a sweet-spiced tang that matches very well with this combination of earthy beets, tart apple, and pickled herring.
Adapted from Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built, by Mark Russ Federman. Reprinted by permission.
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cooking Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, plus chilling time
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
6 to 8 medium beets, trimmed and scrubbed (about 1 3/4-2 lbs)
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp mild Swedish mustard
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp mild Swedish mustard
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp honey
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp minced fresh dill
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 small red onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 pickled herring fillets, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 cup minced sour pickle
1. To prepare the beets, place them in a large saucepean and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the beets are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Drain the beets and rinse with cold water until they are cool enough to handle. The skins should slip off easily. Cut the beets into quarters.
2. Whisk the red wine vinegar, oil, sugar, and mustard in a large bowl. Add the beets and toss to coat. Allow the beets to stand in the vinegar mixture for 2 hours.
3. To prepare the mustard sauce, combine the red wine vinegar, mustard, sugar, and honey in a medium bowl and whisk to blend. Slowly pour in the vegetable oil, whisking constantly. Whisk in the dill and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Drain the beets and cut into 1/4-inch dice. Place them in a large bowl and add the apple, red onion, herring, and minced pickle. Pour half the mustard sauce over the salad and toss to blend. Add more mustard sauce a little at a time until the salad is well coated. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper as necessary.
Mark Russ Federman will be talking about his book with chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein on March 10 at 12pm at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. The event is sold out, but the talk will be streamed live on the JCC website.