by Emily acobs
Russ & aughters in New York’s Lower East Side has been serving up the best in smoked fish, caviar and specialty foods since 1914. Known as J. Russ Cut Rate Appetizing until 1935, the store and the family that started it all have become iconic in the New York food scene, earning the praise of well-known chefs and foodies such as Anthony Bourdain and Martha Stewart.
Three years ago, Mark Russ Federman, known behind the counter at Russ & aughters as “Mr. Russ,” handed the business over to his daughter and nephew and decided to research and write about his family’s history and beloved store. The result is Russ & aughters, Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built (Shocken Books, Random House), released on Tuesday of last week.
WJW had the opportunity to speak with Federman, who will be in conversation with Joan Nathan at Sixth & Historic Synagogue on Tuesday, March 19, to learn more about his new book and his love for Russ & aughters.
WJW: Why did you want to write Russ & Daughters?
Federman: The purpose of the book was a way to transition into retirement since I pent most of my adult life behind the counter. My mission in writing the book was to reflect on the 30 years that I ad run the business and to reflect on my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents who started it. I as hoping that I could turn out something that would make the Russes feel good about what we had done for all of those years because for them, it was just hard work. Now that Russ & Daughters is iconic, I anted to somehow validate what they had created.
WJW: What did you learn during your research for the book?
Federman: I earned that my family is a lot smarter than I thought they were. I hink that some of the things they did in business that I bjected to turned out to be right. While so much as changed over the 100 years that we’ve been in business, what hasn’t changed that I came to realize and understand is the intensity with which we do our business.
WJW: How did your family react to the book?
Federman: The first books out of the box were sent to my mother and aunt in Florida while I as visiting them there. I ad some trepidation as to what their reaction would be but it was total joy. They were kvelling while reading about their lives and were so happy, so I figured, mission accomplished.
WJW: You are very clear that Russ & Daughters is an appetizing store, not a deli. What’s the difference?
Federman: The appetizing store grew up as an invention on the Lower East Side to parallel the deli, it’s actually been called the anti-deli. Delis specialized in meat products that were smoked and pickled, but because of Jewish dietary laws, the fish products, that were generally served with dairy products like butter and cream cheese couldn’t be eaten on the same plate. Appetizing stores, that grew out of herring stands, were to provide fish and dairy products so they weren’t mixed with meat.
WJW: What do you hope for the future of the store?
Federman: It was hard to give over the store but I realized that I ouldn’t do it much longer. I as happy to be there schmoozing, but I was forgetting that I was there to sell fish and I ealized that things needed to be done by a younger generation. Turning the store over and seeing how well they’re doing it is a relief and a joy. You know, this hasn’t been a business that you think way into the future, you think how do I et the best fish in the store that day and how do I et it out to the customers in the best way, the future just sort of happens.
WJW: What is your favorite thing to eat at your store?
Federman: Every product is in there because it passed a taste test. When I o in now, I an eat my way down the counter and am reassured that the fish is every bit as good as when I an it. I sually just go in and see a piece a fish that’s calling out to me. There are certain benefits of being the “herring maven emeritus” in that I can go in and eat whatever looks good to me.
WJW: What do you hope the audience walks away with after hearing from you at Sixth & I?
Federman: I’m hoping that the audience will see that our story is a traditional story about an ethnic family and the food business, and that you don’t have to be Jewish to understand our story. I ant the audience to know that our family has been doing the same thing for 100 years and we keep coming back because of something intangible, a feeling that this place, Russ & Daughters, is providing something special to the world.
Mark Russ Federman will be in conversation with Joan Nathan on Tuesday, March 19 at Sixth & Historic Synagogue. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.sixthandi.org