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Family Keeps Jewish Soulfood Alive At New York 'Appetizing' Store

Mar 3, 2013
Originally published on March 4, 2013 2:28 pm

It's been more than 100 years since Joel Russ started peddling herring from a barrel on the streets of New York.

Today, the restaurant Russ and Daughters is a destination for fans of smoked salmon, whitefish and caviar, among other delicacies. Longtime owner Mark Russ Federman has written a memoir about the family business called Russ and Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House the Herring Built.

"An appetizing store has the mingling odors of salt, smoke, pickle and sweet," says Federman, who ran Russ and Daughters from 1978 until he retired three years ago. "So, all of that coming together makes for a unique sensory experience."

A century ago, the Lower East Side was packed with "appetizing" shops, where merchants would compete to satisfy the noshing needs of the neighborhood's Jewish clientele: pickled herring, smoked whitefish, sable and salmon, bagels and bialys, along with dried fruit, chocolate and candy.

Selling fish is in Federman's blood. His grandfather Joel Russ immigrated to New York from what's now southeastern Poland and opened the store in 1914. Russ didn't have any sons — but he did have three daughters. And Federman says he put them to work behind the counter.

"Down here, there were 20, 30 appetizing stores. And a lot of them had a sign over the door that said, 'Saperstein and Son,' 'Cohen and Son,' whatever, and sons. Sons. Nobody had, 'and daughters,' " Federman says. "So, he put a sign that said Russ and Daughters. That made him unique."

Federman says Hattie, Ida and Anne helped the business in other ways, too.

"These pretty young girls would be fishing herrings out of barrels, and slicing lox, and charming and disarming the toughest of New York's customers," he says. "And these were tough customers."

Unlike his aunts and mother, Mark Russ Federman did have a choice about working in the family business. Federman went to law school. He got a job at an uptown law firm — and hated it.

In 1978, Federman came back to run the family business. And he was shocked at how hard the job was.

"We're dealing with a finicky product," Federman says. "We're talking about fish, most of it wild. Every fish is different. Every customer is different. Every employee is different. And the idea is to be able to line up fish and customer and counterman perfectly hundreds of times a day."

Today, the men and women behind the counter aren't all Russes. Some of them aren't even — heaven forbid — Jewish. Herman Vargas has been working here for 32 years, ever since he arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic.

"There is something called bashert in Yiddish, which is like destiny. Now I can say [it is] so," Vargas says of his chosen profession. "But when I first came in no, no way."

Russ and Daughters survived long enough to be rediscovered by foodies and food writers. Now, Mark Federman has handed the business over to a fourth generation of Russes — his nephew, Josh Russ Tupper, and his daughter, Niki Russ Federman. They've tried to bring the store into the 21st century gently, with innovations like ordering over the Internet. Though not all of their customers are interested.

"People will come back at me almost as if I've offended them," says Niki Federman. "One person even said, 'Don't take my joy away from me. I have to come. I have to talk to Jose. He's my favorite counter guy. I've been seeing him for 30 years.'"

All the Russes acknowledge that the success of the store is about more than the quality of its fish. That helps, says Federman.

But even after writing a book about the store, Federman says he's not quite sure why Russ and Daughters is still in business when so many appetizing stores aren't.

"This store has a soul — a neshama, as we say in Hebrew," says Federman. "Some of the Russes get that. And that's what keeps us doing this kind of thing."

Even in retirement, Mark Russ Federman hasn't lost his enthusiasm for the store's products. His lunch order? Smoked salmon and sable on a bialy with cream cheese and tomato. "To me, it's heaven," he says. "If somebody asks me — and they have, actually — what's your dying meal, this is it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, to a family story of a different sort. It's been more than 100 years since Joel Russ started peddling herring from a barrel on the streets of New York's Lower East Side. Today, the store Russ and Daughters is a destination for fans of smoked salmon, whitefish and caviar. Longtime owner Mark Russ Federman has written a memoir about his family business. NPR's Joel Rose has this taste of The House that Herring Built.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When you walk into Russ and Daughters' narrow storefront on the Lower East Side, your eye may be drawn to the golden whitefish in the display case or the deep orange and ruby of the smoked salmon or the jars full of dried fruit, chocolates and candy. But what hits your first is that the room smells impossibly good.

MARK RUSS FEDERMAN: An appetizing store has the mingling odors of salt, smoke, pickle and sweet. So, all of that coming together makes for a unique sensory experience.

ROSE: Mark Russ Federman ran Russ and Daughters for over 30 years before retiring in 2009. A century ago, the Lower East Side was packed with appetizing stores, where merchants would compete to satisfy the noshing needs of the neighborhood's Jewish clientele. Those customers have long since moved out, but they still come back to shop at Russ and Daughters.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Which was your favorite lox, did you say? Did you say your fatty lox?

FEDERMAN: My favorite lox is the one that I look at that I like, but right now it's that piece of fish right there. You know why? You could see the fat lines in there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The fat, yeah.

ROSE: Even in retirement, Federman hasn't lost his touch for schmoozing with the customers, or his enthusiasm for the store's products. For lunch, Federman orders his favorite sandwich, smoked salmon and sable on a bialy with cream cheese and tomato.

FEDERMAN: If somebody asks me - and they have actually - what's your dying meal, this is it. To me, it's heaven, you know...

ROSE: Selling fish is in Federman's blood. His grandfather immigrated to New York from what's now southeastern Poland and opened the store in 1914. Joel Russ didn't have any sons, but he did have three daughters. And Federman says he put them to work behind the counter.

FEDERMAN: Down here, there were 20, 30 appetizing stores. And a lot of them had a sign over the door that said Saperstein and Son, Cohen and Son, whatever and son, sons. Nobody had and daughters. So, he put a sign that said Russ and Daughters. That made him unique.

ROSE: Federman says Hattie, Ida and Anne helped the business in other ways, too.

So, these pretty young girls would be fishing herrings out of barrels, and slicing lox, and charming and disarming the toughest of New York's customers. And these were tough customers.

Unlike his aunts and mother, Mark Russ Federman did have a choice about working in the family business. He went to law school. He got a job at an uptown firm - and hated it. In 1978, Federman went back to run Russ and Daughters. And he was shocked at how hard the job was.

FEDERMAN: We're dealing with a finicky product. We're talking about fish, you know, most of it wild. And every fish is different. Every customer is different. Every employee is different. And the idea is to be able to line up fish and customer and counterman perfectly hundreds of times a day.

HERMAN VARGAS: You have herring in cream sauce. She's got (unintelligible) of traditional (unintelligible) in cream sauce.

ROSE: Today, the men and women behind the counter aren't all Russes. Some of them aren't even Jewish. Herman Vargas has been working here for 32 years, ever since he arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic.

VARGAS: There is something called bashert in Yiddish, which is like destiny. Now, I can say so. But when I first came in here, no, no way.

ROSE: Russ and Daughters survived long enough to be rediscovered by foodies and food writers. Now, Mark Federman has handed the business over to a fourth generation of Russes - his nephew, Josh Russ Tupper, and his daughter, Niki Russ Federman. They've tried to bring the store into the 21st century gently, with innovations like ordering over the Internet. Though Niki says not all of their customers are interested.

NIKI RUSS FEDERMAN: People will come back at me almost as if I've offended them and say, well, of course not. I have to come here. One person even said: Don't take my joy away from me. I have to come. I have to talk to Jose. He's my favorite counter guy. I've been seeing him for 30 years. I have to pick out what I want.

ROSE: All the Russes acknowledge that the success of the store is about more than the quality of its fish. That helps, says Mark Russ Federman. But even after writing a book about the store, Federman says it's hard to explain why Russ and Daughters is still in business when so many appetizing stores aren't.

FEDERMAN: This store has a soul - a neshama, as we say in Hebrew. And some of the Russes get that. And that's what keeps us doing this kind of thing.

ROSE: Maybe that's what keeps the rest of us coming back too. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.