So, you take the F train to Second Avenue and walk east on Houston Street. Keep walking. In time, you will reach a narrow-ish Manhattan food shop that, if you’re not careful, could turn you into a wide-ish person. Above the door, RUSS & DAUGHTERS APPETIZERS glistens in ’50s neon, flanked quotation-mark-style by two fish, as if to say, “Walk no farther. This is the real deal.”
Enter, and behold: Herring of customer Oliver Sacks’s giddiest imaginings. Smoked salmon that has beckoned bellies from Zero Mostel to Meyer Lansky. Little mountains of dried Turkish figs so plump and moist, you would swear they were just plucked from a dried fig tree. And a daunting array of caviar that tastes “as if the sea has kissed your tongue.”
That description is from Mark Russ Federman, the store’s third-generation major domo and reigning poet laureate. Federman, who fled from a cushy attorney’s position in 1978 to run his grandfather Joel’s iconic family business, has officially turned the keys over to his daughter Niki and nephew Josh. Happily, he has also turned over a bounty of fish tales, immigrant lore, family photos, and recipes, assembling them into a memoir as abundant in charm as the Russ inventory is in gastonomic seductions.
It has taken the better part of a century for Russ & Daughters to acquire its world-class repute. The doors were first opened in 1914 by Federman’s grandfather Joel Russ, a Galician Jew who stepped onto American soil seven years earlier. In the ensuing decades, the store would hold fast to its family identity and tradition of personalized service while the surrounding Lower East Side metamorphosized from a glutted labyrinth of tenements and pushcarts into a bombed-out mecca for junkies and drug dealers. Today, its reminted streets hum with tourists, trendoid bars, and luxury apartments.
Grandpa Russ was “a typical Eastern European immigrant, long on drive and short on patience, especially with customers.” The art of shmoozing up the clientele — eliciting their life stories while slicing their lox — was cultivated by Russ’s three personable daughters, Hattie, Anne, and Ida. Hattie, in particular, emanated “a combination of pride in her product and regret over each piece of fish she sold, as if it were a child about to be given up for adoption.”
With crisp and evocative details worthy of a Malamud short story, Federman conveys an avuncular ardor for the feisty characters on both sides of the Russ & Daughters counter: Mrs. Manny, who made the author jump through hoops every Rosh Hashana choosing pickled herrings for her three children (who wouldn’t dare admit they disliked pickled herring); the Muslim employee who ran off with a Jewish customer; the gentleman who dropped several hundred dollars at the caviar express counter just so he wouldn’t have to wait in a long line for six bagels.
Federman also revels in the quotidian routines of the work, offering an education in matters one rarely contemplates, but is ultimately pleased one did. How to slice smoked salmon. The difference between sable and sturgeon. Best of all is the crash course in Yiddish phraseology. My favorite, filed away for appropriate future use, is Rebbitzen, tog mir a toyveh, fahrlir mein ahdres: “Lady, do me a favor, lose my address.”
“Russ & Daughters” has Jewish-shtetl attitude to spare, and as such merits a niche on your kitchen bookshelf next to Kenny Shopsin’s “Eat Me.” While you don’t have to be Jewish or a New Yorker to get it, as Federman insists, I wouldn’t read it on an empty stomach. You also don’t need to be near an F train to drain your 401(k) ordering chopped herring at Russanddaughters.com.