On September 22, 2018 the New York Times reported that Anne Russ Federman, age 97, had passed away.
Anne was the oldest surviving daughter of Joel Russ, founder of RUSS & DAUGHTERS, the temple of smoked sturgeon, herring, lox and bagels on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. All three of Joel’s daughters – Hattie, Ida and Anne – worked the counter full-time beginning in their teens, with Anne starting in 1935 at age 14.
It all began with their father, Joel Russ, a Jewish immigrant from what is now Poland coming to New York City in 1907. Penniless, he started out by selling herring and schmaltz (rendered chicken or goose fat) out of a barrel on Hester Street. Soon he was able to buy a pushcart and added mushrooms and a few assorted delicacies to his budding enterprise. And finally, in 1914, he moved to a brick & mortar store that he named RUSS’S CUT RATE APPETIZERS. Six years later, in 1920, he moved the operation to its present location at 179 Houston in Soho.
So why the word “Appetizers?”
I understand that Jewish dietary laws dictate that meat and dairy cannot be eaten or sold together, nor can meat and seafood. As a result, two kinds of stores emerged: those that sold meat (delicatessens); and those that sold seafood and dairy, which came to be called “appetizer stores” – kind of like a seafood deli.
(I don’t know this for sure, but Russ & Daughters may be the last remaining “appetizer store” in New York.)
And so it was that in 1935, having no sons, Joel Russ made his three daughters full partners in the business. Thus began a long line of family generations that run the store to this day. The girls’ husbands all became part of the family business.
Third-generation operators were Mark Russ Federman and his wife, Maria. Mark quit lawyering for good after filling in as a “counter man” one week. In addition to slicing lox into paper-thin slices, Mark went on to write his reflections in a book titled The House That Herring Built. Not stopping there, he wrote and produced a film called The Sturgeon Queens, which was directed by Julie Cohen as an ode to his mother, Anne, and her sisters.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morley Safer all had cameos in the film.
Today the fourth generation is at the helm, led by Niki Russ Federman and her cousin, Josh Russ Tupper. They’ve add a New Age “wasabi flying fish roe” to the mix – as a topping for the sliced smoked sturgeon inside the bagels – but for the most part the offerings remain as they always have.
In my posting of September 15, 2016, The Best of the Wurst, I cited Russ & Daughters as one of our favorites in NYC. Check it out because it was on that visit one Saturday morning that Joanne and I stood for twenty minutes ass-to-elbow amongst the throngs of hungry Type A Lower Manhattanites just to get a bagel.
As it turned out, we ordered a lot more than just a bagel. While patiently staring at the refrigerated cases loaded with smoked mackerel and sturgeon, lox and pickled herring (some with curried sour cream), along with chopped chicken liver redolent with schmaltz and onions begging to be slathered on an onion bagel, Joanne and I both lost it.
We have a habit of occasionally pigging out and pig out we did. First, I ordered an onion bagel with smoked salmon, sliced fresh tomatoes, capers and loads of scallion cream cheese…. schmear. Then I blurted out “Gimme one of those salmon and cream cheese bagels with the salmon fish eggs on top.” Joanne, being only slightly less out of control than me, went for the sweets – ordering a Babka (a sort of yeast risen brioche-like coffee cake wrapped around a dark chocolate fudge filling); a Raspberry Rugelach, a semi-light and flaky pastry; AND an iconic New York Black & White cookie. I can’t figure it out….she maintains her weight right around a hundred pounds. Damn her.
Well, we got our overstuffed big bag of goodies only to realize that Russ & Daughters has no seating, save for two iron park benches that sit outside in the front. After another 20-minute wait for this coveted spot, we finally sat down and tried our best to ignore the stares from everyone else who wanted that seat. Screw ‘em (Joanne’s words).
You do not stay in business for a hundred years without being smart and crafty. And they were plenty smart to open RUSS & DAUGHTERS CAFÉ two short blocks away on Orchard Street. It’s an attractive, sit-down-and-be-waited-on kind of place where you can get dishes with any of their Houston Street offerings as well as complete meals such as Shakshouka, a Mediterranean dish of eggs poached in a peppery tomato stew.
The Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict comes atop a toasted brioche. Potato Latkes (think mini hash browns) come with a savory side of sour cream and salmon roe. And there are a number of “Boards,” some with smoked salmon, others with smoked sturgeon, and always with sliced tomatoes and red onion.
Thirsty? Get a classic Chocolate Egg Cream – a drink that has neither eggs nor cream, but is concocted with carbonated water, milk and chocolate syrup.
And if it’s cold outside or if you have a cold…well, there’s always a steaming bowl of Matzo Ball Soup. I can’t recall if they have Chicken Soup. If they don’t, they should.
So there you have it…..take-out or eat-in at Russ & Daughters.
I’ll leave you with this: Mark, the enterprising third-generation operator whose son, Noah, is a physician, was quoted in the New York Times piece as saying, “As far as I know, I am the only Jewish father who was disappointed that his kid became a doctor. I was thinking ‘sturgeon,’ not ‘surgeon.’”