Recap: Kibbitzing with Russ & Daughters at Tenement Talks

Posted on: March 18th, 2013 at 12:03 pm by

This image has been archived or removed.

If you grew up in New York City in the last 100 years, and you do not know Russ & Daughters, purveyors of lox, herring, whitefish salad (which this reporter declares the best in the world), chopped liver, and other assorted “appetizers,” then you have clearly been missing out.

Third generation owner Mark Russ Federman has written a memoir, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built, which details the history of his family business. Known as an “appetizing store,” it is a type of business that barely exists anymore, and is now a foodie destination. Originally founded as a pushcart in 1907, the store is now located on Houston Street where it has been standing for a century. Russ & Daughters is now run by the fourth generation of Russes: Federman’s daughter Niki, and his nephew Josh.

Celebrating the book’s release, Federman appeared at the Tenement Museum last Wednesday, as part of their “Tenement Talks” series, along with his editor, Altie Karper.

This image has been archived or removed.

Mark Russ Federman and Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel/Photo: Lori Greenberg

The evening started with a short film clip from the PBS special Jews of New York, featuring an interview with two of the Russ sisters, Federman’s mother Anne and her sister Hattie Russ Gold. Both in their 90s, the charismatic sisters recalled how their father, Joel Russ, was not exactly diplomatic with the customers, who could tend to be picky and quite tough (just imagine what old-world Jewish foodies must have been like in 1914!). Joel Russ would often turn to a difficult customer, and say: “Do me a favor. Forget my address.”

Fortunately, the sisters (originally three of them), were a lot more charming with the customers, and attracted a lot of business. Having daughters in a family business was rare in those days. While it was common to see businesses named for the family with “and Sons” added to the title, there were not any which read “and Daughters.” The appetizing store, which had a lot of competition at the time, became a novelty draw for the customers, especially for young men who wanted to chat up the sisters.

In the film clip, the Russ sisters remembered the long hours and hard work, but also fondly recalled being known as “the Sturgeon Queens,” and mentioned that this saying was printed on the shopping bags.

After the film clip ended, Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel introduced Mark Russ Federman and Altie Karper, saying, “I don’t think I’ve seen this many people come together – for herring!”

This image has been archived or removed.

Mark Russ Federman and Altie Karper/Photo: Lori Greenberg

Vogel also mentioned that the book, which had been out for a little more than one week, was already #23 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Turns out, people really DO like herring (and reading about it)!

Altie Karper then sat down with Mark Russ Federman to discuss the memoir while staffers at the Tenement Museum passed food around (each guest got tastes of lox and herring which, to no one’s surprise, were quite amazing).

This image has been archived or removed.

Photo: Lori Greenberg

This reporter has already read the book, and highly recommends it. It is a great immigrant story about both an ever-changing New York City over the past century and a vivid history of a unique food business melding its roots with evolving tastes and customers, retaining the old while adapting to the new.

Harper began the conversation by asking Federman about the word “appetizing.” She had looked it up in the dictionary, she said, and came up empty handed. Federman’s response was that nobody really knows the word’s true origins. He surmised, though, that it probably grew out of the kosher requirement that businesses could not sell dairy and meat together. The appetizing stores then most likely arose to fulfill the demand for “everything else” that the kosher butcher shops could not provide. Or, he then wondered aloud, “Maybe it was competition? Maybe Izzy down the block looked at a store which had a sign that said, ‘delicious food’ and said, ‘so, you think your store is ‘delicious?’ Well, mine’s APPETIZING!’”

If you look up “appetizing” on Wikipedia, Karper added, you get a photo of Russ & Daughters.

Federman then described the early years of the store. “We were a Jewish store, in a Jewish neighborhood, selling Jewish food, to Jewish customers. But, everything has changed now.”

“People now regard the Lower East Side as nostalgic,” Federman continued, and they wax poetically about it, but “it was a terrible neighborhood. It was not pleasant. Everyone’s dream was to get out of the Lower East Side, including Grandpa Russ.”

This image has been archived or removed.

179 East Houston, as seen in a city tax photo (c. 1939-1941)

Federman discussed how bad the LES was – and continued to be – for many decades. The second generation stayed in the business, but wanted their kids to have a better life. Federman went to college and became a lawyer, but then decided to come back to the fold in 1978 because there was nobody left to go into the family business. At that time, Federman says, “Jews had already left the Lower East Side long ago for better neighborhoods. City services abandoned the area.” When he came in to run the store, the existing counter people and vendors didn’t respect him because they still viewed him as a kid, and also wondered what a lawyer could know about fish.

People asked him why he didn’t move uptown to a safer neighborhood, He wanted to stay in the same space that his grandfather built. He kept saying “uptown will move downtown,” not knowing it would actually happen, but would take a few more decades. And despite crime being at an all time high, he felt not many people would try to break into the store to steal herring.

“We got to watch the changes [in the neighborhood] from our little vantage point from our little corner of our little appetizing store. One day, I noticed different accents, and different types of people coming in. I would start asking people what they did, and I heard ‘I’m an artist,’ ‘I’m a writer,’ ‘I’m a musician,’ and then I realized that things had started to change.”

This image has been archived or removed.

Russ and Daughters today/Photo: David Bergman

When Karper asked Federman how the product has evolved, he asked the audience “anyone remember butterfish?” Not many did. People started wanting less fattening fish (not knowing until more recently that fatty fish, as opposed to fatty meat, is good for you). They also didn’t want as much salt or bones in their fish. So, butterfish and a few others fell out of fashion.

He then reminisced about sharing schmaltz herrings, another food that is less popular these days, with Abe Lebewohl, who had been the owner of the 2nd Avenue Deli. Federman smiled over the memories, saying “Schmaltz herrings – they’re for old Jews and Vikings!”

This image has been archived or removed.

Mark Russ Federman/Photo: Lori Greenberg

Federman, exhibiting the expert schmoozing ability that he says is necessary for the business, told many other good stories. Many of them are in the book, so we don’t want to spoil it for you. But if you want to read about how Grandpa Russ sold black market canned sardines during WWII, or how Federman wound up hiring a Dominican counterman who speaks better Yiddish than he does, or how Niki and Josh shocked him by creating an upscale wasabi-laced sandwich called “The Heeb,” then run, don’t walk, over to the Tenement Museum and buy a copy of the book.

And don’t miss the Kol Nidrei story. That’s all we’re telling ya.

Recent Stories

Stanton Street 99-Cent Pizzeria Robbed Before Thanksgiving

Another commercial robbery in Hell Square. Last week, just before Thanksgiving, the 99-cent pizzeria at 105 Stanton Street fell victim. Police say that two men busted through the front door and stole money from the cash register ($1,400) as well as an electronic bicycle (valued at $2,400). Both individuals were seen fleeing eastbound on Stanton Street […]

Running for Chinatown Amidst a Pandemic (Again)

For the second time since spring, one Chinatown native is literally stepping up to help the community. Leland Yu, the 28-year-old member of the Chinese Freemasons Athletic Club, returns to the pavement this Saturday for his 12-hour “Run for Chinatown.” The last time around, he clocked an astonishing 61.2 miles, and raised over $18,000. Yu […]

Marriott’s Moxy Hotel on the Bowery Begins 18-Story Ascent

The first elements of the new Moxy hotel on the Bowery are now visible. Peeking above the tattered boards at Bowery is a network of structural steel beams. Department of Buildings signage onsite promises a rather optimistic completion date of “spring 2022.” Given progress thus far, though, meeting the goal seems unrealistic. As reported, the […]

When ‘Forward’ Lit the Way on East Broadway

There was a time when the lights burned bright above East Broadway. And we’re not talking about the sign for 169 Bar. Indeed, the iconic Jewish Daily Forward building at 175 East Broadway – designated a city landmark in 1983 – once boasted rooftop lighting that may have rivaled those of the Atlantic City boardwalk. […]

Dough Pizza Takes Over from ‘Champion’ at Ludlow Residence Dorm

Pizza maven, Famous Hakki Akdeniz recently shut down his Champion Pizza outpost on Ludlow Street. Now, a likeminded successor is ready to swoop in. Dough Pizza, a new pizza business, just signed a lease for the 475 square-foot spot in the base of the School of Visual Arts skyscraper dormitory (aka Ludlow Residence). The restaurant […]