Where Food is Family

Mark Russ Federman
Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes
from the House That Herring Built

(Schocken, 2013)

You could buy pickled herring on the Internet right now. You could also buy smoked salmon, whitefish, and tubs of cream cheese. In fact, you don’t need to leave your house to purchase anything anymore. But as commerce, like dating and socializing, becomes increasingly digitized, what is lost? As far as lox provisions go, you lose having to deal with crowds and the subway—but you also lose interacting with members of the storied Russ family, who founded Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side.

Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built, by Mark Russ Federman, is a memoir of one family’s years of filling Yom Kippur orders and serving as a community center of sorts for New York’s Jewish population. From peddling herring via pushcart in the early 1900s to publishing a blog called Lox Populi (and tweeting under the same Twitter handle today), the family behind Russ & Daughters has kept culinary traditions alive for many Jewish families. But Russ & Daughters is about more than just lox—the store has remained steadfast in a neighborhood that’s changed dramatically over the 100 years it’s been open. In discussing the various waves of immigrant populations that settled there and city laws that phased out carts and changed store hours, Federman captures the whole Lower East Side’s evolution through the lens of the shop.

Russ & Daughters rose from humble beginnings in 1907, when Joel Russ, a native of Galicia in Eastern Europe who was working as a baker in Germany, arrived in America. He moved in with his sister Channah and her husband Isaac, and pitched in at the family herring stand. Fish cost just five cents in those days, and he toiled on the streets until he had earned enough money to reimburse Channah the $25 immigrant sponsorship fee. Debt repaid, Joel then struck out on his own and opened a candy store in Brooklyn. After four years at the basement-level shop, he sold the business and opened Russ’s Cut Rate Appetizing on the Lower East Side in 1914. In 1923, he moved the store to 179 East Houston Street, which is where you’ll find it today. In 1935, Joel changed the name to Russ and Daughters, after two of his daughters joined the family business. After that, there weren’t many changes. The store is in the same location. It still sells herring, lox, and whitefish. And it is still run by the Russ family.

Russ & Daughters is an appetizing store, which means it sells prepared foods like smoked and cured fish, fish in cream sauce, and cheese blintzes, which are traditionally eaten on Jewish holidays. While Federman recognizes the role that food plays in people’s lives, he also recognizes how the store reflects changes taking place in the Lower East Side. In the 1870s, the neighborhood consisted of shoddy, overcrowded tenements, and people worked in sweatshops or sold food from pushcarts. By the 1920s, bridges and trains connected Lower Manhattan to the outer boroughs, and while many people moved away, the tenements remained crowded. In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia viewed pushcarts as “unsightly reminders of Old World living,” and built indoor markets. Joel Russ, who had already made the leap from pushcart to storefront, joined with other storekeepers to eliminate pushcarts and “modernize the neighborhood.”

But a 1929 law to make tenements more livable wasn’t foolproof, as landlords abandoned properties rather than improve them. The Lower East Side lost more than half of its population between 1910 and 1940, but families like the Russes, who had moved to Brooklyn in the 1930s, returned to the neighborhood when they couldn’t afford their house and store. After World War II, many Jewish people left for the suburbs and were replaced by Latinos, including Jose Reyes and Herman Vargas, who took jobs at Russ & Daughters and have worked there for decades. In the ’70s and ’80s, artists and writers moved to the affordable neighborhood, but crime was rising and stores were forced to roll metal gates over their doors at night. The ’90s brought more prosperity, as older restaurants sold to developers. It made Federman notice that his shop looked “increasingly old,” and he remodeled it from 1999 to 2001. 

On September 12, 2001, while many neighborhood businesses temporarily closed, Russ & Daughters remained open. “We represented something enduring and reliable in a changing neighborhood during changing times,” Federman writes, noting that after the city recovered, people wanted to live in the area. “The Lower East Side was just too perfectly situated between uptown and downtown.”

Federman is an engaging narrator, and his consideration of his grandfather’s rise in the world of herring is both honest and charming. A former lawyer who returned to the family business after realizing that it provided a sense of community that he couldn’t find in a courtroom, Federman traced his family history by visiting rabbis and aged aunts, talking with longtime customers, and calling on his memory of a childhood spent in the shop. Now that his own daughter and nephew run the store, Federman has enough distance to talk about his years behind the counter and write this thoughtful history of both a family and a neighborhood.

Over the years, the store has had many fans, from Yiddish theater stars to writer Calvin Trillin, who penned the short foreword to the book. “When my daughters were small,” he wrote, “I used to go to Russ & Daughters on Sunday mornings to have them appreciated” by the staff. Trillin’s order of whitefish salad came packaged with fond memories of these family trips, and as his children grew up, the store remained unchanged. It is, and will always be, the place where he buys pickled lox and where the staff recognizes the importance of family.

 “I sell fish and nostalgia,” Federman writes of Russ & Daughters, which also encapsulates the memoir perfectly. It’s a nice balance for those interested both in food history and family history. Half the story is about the food—how to select a perfect fish, how to add just enough innovation to a successful store to attract new customers, and how to keep picky customers happy (candy for the children). The other half is about the nostalgia—Russ & Daughters smells of “the brininess of herrings and pickles; the yeastiness of freshly baked bagels and bialys.” The text is interspersed with family photos of weddings and bat mitzvahs, and each chapter ends with a recipe or two. It also includes customers’ memories, anecdotes that reveal the intertwining of food and family. One customer recalls how his grandfather only realized his success after he served belly lox at a party; a woman’s children reminisce about how she gave them herring each year for Rosh Hashanah, although none of them actually liked the fish. With the recipes, you can make herring in parchment, potato latkes, and fruit strudel, and you may want to have these ingredients on hand while reading—it may only take a few pages before you’re imagining gnawing on a bagel topped with a schmear of cream cheese and draped with lox. 

Contributor

Amy Cavanaugh

Amy Cavanaugh writes about food, travel, and culture from her home base of Chicago.

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