Movin’ On Down…to the Lower East Side

 

russ & Daughters cover2Russ and Daughters 

Book Review May 2013

Russ and Daughters is a first-hand account of the legendary fourth generation Jewish appetizer store serving herring and all varieties of smoked fish, bagels and assorted chazzerai to discriminating customers from New York’s Lower East Side and beyond for over 100 years. Mark Russ Federman gave up a successful uptown law career where he worked 60 hours a week litigating cases… and moved downtown to take over the store from his parents and aunts where he worked sixty hours a week purchasing cases (of merchandise to keep the shelves stocked), slicing fish, balancing the books, managing the staff, and most importantly schmoozing with the customers. The recipe for his delectable story is equal parts history, gastronomy, and Yiddish culture with a tall glass of kibitzing and several generous pinches of nostalgia.

 Federman chronicles the ups and downs of the family business over the years. His grandfather, a first generation immigrant from Strzyzow – a small rural town in Austro-Hungary’s Galizia (now part of Poland) started his business selling herring from his push cart amongst his landsmen on the streets of the shtetl that was New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the Twentieth Century. His customers were other first generation Jews from across Eastern Europe packed tightly together in the neighborhood’s now famous tenements (check out The Tenement Museum, http://www.tenement.org/).

Russ & Daughters storefrontWith lots of hard work he was able to expand to a storefront on Orchard St. and then to the current location at 179 E Houston St. Over time, Grandpa Russ brought his three daughters and their husbands into the business (plus assorted other relatives). As the Jews (including the Russ family) gradually prospered they sought the clean air and comforts of the outer boroughs and eventually the suburbs. But the store remained and eventually the clientele broadened as new immigrants sampled and fell in love with the traditional morsels offered at Russ and Daughters.

Russ & Daughters appetizerAnd as with immigrant families in general and Jews in particular, the children were encouraged to stay in school and seek professional careers. Federman graduated from Georgetown Law School but when the store was extra busy during the holidays (especially following Yom Kippur when observant and non-observant Jews alike celebrate with appetizer) his prestigious professional status did not shelter him from having to pitch in and work weekends in the store.

Mark Russ Federman

Mark Russ Federman

But when his parents were ready to retire, Federman shocked the family with his decision to trade in his three piece suit in favor of the Russ & Daughters white smock and become the third generation to keep the business going. There are lots of amusing and enlightening anecdotes about how Federman, as a relative novice was tested – his legal background certainly did not prepare him for a trial by fire.

Russ & Daughters counter manSlowly but surely though, Federman succeeded in not only maintaining but expanding and improving the business. He quickly learned how to negotiate with vendors to get quality goods and the importance of developing a rapport with customers to ensure their loyalty. He broke with tradition and hired the first non-Jews to work the counter and proved you don’t have to be Jewish to cut lox so thin you can read the NY Times through it. Fast forward to a few years ago when Federman himself was thinking about retiring and his daughter and nephew stepped up to continue the Russ and Daughter operation into its fourth generation.

Russ & Daughters bagel & loxNot surprisingly, Federman was left scratching his head when the new owners introduced their own improvements including modern computerized inventory techniques and internet sales and by all accounts business is booming. But to his credit (and his parents and grandparents before him) Federman recognized, nurtured, and passed on to the next generation the core elements that make Russ & Daughters a success: irresistible, typical Jewish appetizer including the highest quality smoked fish and accoutrements served with a side of pickled kibitz and a schmear of schmooze.

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Sidebar: How to Make an Egg Cream

seltzer bottlesInterspersed in the book are traditional recipes, most of which are based on the ingredients sold at Russ and Daughters, e.g., Beet, Apple, and Herring Salad; Bagel Pudding with Prunes and Raisins; Whitefish and Baked Salmon Salad…but the one that intrigued me the most was for that most famous NY beverage known as The Egg Cream.

There are only three ingredients needed for this drink (milk, Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup and seltzer) but what stood out in the Federman version was the unique order of ingredients: To ½ cup of milk, fill glass with seltzer, and then squirt in 3 tbs. chocolate syrup and stir. All of the egg creams that I have ever personally concocted or consumed were prepared by first mixing the milk and U-Bet, stirring, and finally the seltzer. We’re temporarily out of Fox’s U-Bet, but first chance I get I look forward to trying the Russ & Daughters technique.  Let’s hear about your experiences with egg creams…

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Moving On Down (O.Pin & A.Ted)

…to the tune of Movin On Up, theme song for The Jeffersons

Well, he moved on down

To the Lower East Side,

To sell herring, lox and chazzerai,

Moved on down,

To the Lower East Side,

To keep his family’s fish flyin’ high

Fish are stored in the barrel

Halavah and candy in the case,

Took a whole lotta stamina,

Just to keep up the pace

They’re still up in the big leagues

Selling their delectable treats,

As long as you live, No matter where you shop,

Russ & Daughters can’t be beat

Well, he moved on down

To the Lower East Side,

To sell herring, lox and chazzrai,

Moved on down,

To the Lower East Side,

To keep his family’s fish flyin’ high

 

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great review of Russ and Daughters. I do know Mark from Park Slope Copy and have invited him to address a meeting of Jo-Ann’s book club, which will of course be reading the book. Catering to be done by…..Russ and Daughters.
    On a similar topic see today’s NY Times for article on Katz’s deli. Another great New York story.

    Bob Kalb

    Editor’s response: Thanks Rob, Mark has also weighed in with a herrings up sign. We should definitely get together to shmooze and shmear.

    Like


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