In 1978, Mark Russ Federman left his job as an Upper East Side trial lawyer and returned to Russ and Daughters, his family’s Lower East Side appetizing store. The landmark store, which sells smoked fish, bagels, dried fruits and other traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes was founded in 1914 by Federman’s Grandpa Russ. Publishers Weekly caught up with Federman, Russ & Daughter’s Schmoozer-in-Chief, while he was in Seattle as part of his book tour, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From The House That Herring Built.
I gained weight from reading this book. What did you gain from writing this book?
A large part of my life, aside from slicing fish, was schmoozing. I remember schmoozing one day with a customer—I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a well-known art critic from Time magazine, Robert Hughes. We were talking, and I was probably trying to make myself look more sophisticated and knowledgeable than I really am, so I threw out that old saw that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” And Hughes, who was a character that was larger than life, immediately retorted: “An unlived life is not worth examining.” That thing stuck. And you know what? I figure I actually lived my life at Russ and Daughters. You know that admonition, “Go out and see the world?” I didn’t have to! At that little appetizing store, the world came to see me. And so I lived my life basically the way I wanted to. And writing this book gave me the chance to examine it.
Your mother and aunts were the daughters of Russ and Daughters and worked in the store for years. Your mother and aunt Hattie are alive and living in Florida. How did they react to the book?
Two weeks before the book was released, I was in Florida visiting my mother and aunt, when the publisher took the first two books out of the first box that was printed and sent them to my mother and aunt. A brilliant move! They hadn’t seen the book before. I didn’t show it to them for several reasons. I was actually slow-footing this whole thing, until Schocken and Random House got a little annoyed with me. There was a nefarious purpose—which was to keep my mother and aunt alive and give them something to look forward to. Also the question was: How are they going to react? I expected to hear things like: “Whatcha have to say that for?” and “They don’t need to know that!”
Nonetheless I was there, and a little nervous as they opened the packages. They had to read them with magnifying glasses. (I’m assuming that we’re going to get this major spike in sales once the large print edition comes out.)
Anyhow, they read it and were thrilled. They were thrilled to read the stories of their lives. My intention was not to be poignant about it, but instead be a little nostalgic, a little fun, a little bit edgy-Lower-East-Side. And they got it and they loved it. And I said “Mission accomplished,” and that was enough for me.
What do you think your Grandpa Russ would say if he read the book?
“So you wrote a book? So who was watching the register?”
He also would have been proud. Grandpa Russ was a fellow who was proud of what he did, and proud of his family--although he never really showed them. Pride in Yiddish is “shtolts.” He was shtolts. Partly it’s pride, but it’s also arrogance. Think of Grandpa Russ, from this little shtetl in Poland, in Galizia. He comes here and has a little fish business and presses his daughters into duty. When he retired he wore a three-piece suit and had a cane with a gold handle. He was full of himself. I got that gene directly. I know I have that gene.
So the book tour suits you?
It does. I know I shouldn’t admit this, but it does. I was in San Francisco at the Jewish Community Center. They packed the house, and they did it by ordering food from Russ and Daughters and then putting in tables [so people could sit and eat]. I’m looking at this from the stage and thinking “My god! I’m at my bar mitzvah!” But once I have a crowd like that, it’s the same thing as being behind the counter. When I have a captive audience, I’m in the zone. This is shtolts. It may be sound a bit arrogant, but they were laughing with me. They were crying with me. They were kvelling. And they were enjoying the food at the same time. So this book tour, it makes me feel good.
What accounts for the longevity of your family’s business?
There’s an irony here. I have a graduate degree in law and I practiced law for a while. Not that anyone knew it (or cared) when I was behind the counter, because who wants to buy fish from a lawyer? (You can’t tell which one is fishier!) Nobody wanted their kid in this kind of business. What they wanted was for my generation to get an education and do something better and easier. So the last thing they wanted was for us to come into the business. The irony is that I was the most educated of my generation and then gave it up to come back into the business that they tried so hard to have us not work in.
The irony continues now that I’m running the business and I have two kids and I want them to come into the business. I think that what we are doing is valuable to the world and valuable to us. It feels good. There is an immediate gratification on both sides of the counter. You walk into the store as a customer and you feel good, you love the smell and you have someone at the counter, and he’s not just waiting on you, but he’s finding out about your life and you’re findng out about his. You’re watching him slice though salmon like an artisan and then you go home and you eat it and you’re really happy because the food is great and you come back happy. So where else does that happen in the world of work?
Did both your kids go into the business?
My eldest is my son and he turns out to disappoint me. I’m the only Jewish father who is upset his son is doctor, but he’s a fabulous doctor, so I’ve given that up. And then it turns out it’s my daughter who wanted to carry on the business. And at the same time, my nephew, who is an engineer and raised on an ashram asked to join the business.
When my nephew Josh said he wanted to come into the business I said “What the hell is going on here?” He doesn’t know anything about this business! At least my kids were forced to work on the weekends and holidays and pack and pickle. Josh had no connection with the business at all. But when he asked I said: “Okay, I’ll give it a try.” I didn’t have any expectation it would last longer than a week. But engineers are impressive in their own way and can actually get from point A to point B in a straight line. I could never to do that. He turned the store into an organized business. I ran it like my parents and grandparents ran it -- as a seat-of-the-pants, mom-and-pop operation. Now it’s an actual business.
If you get a next generation who chooses to do what you’ve been doing most of your life then what could be more successful or validating than that? So I consider myself a success.
What is the best thing that Niki and Josh have done for the store?
I can remember the moment when I came out of the back office and walked down the front of the showcase, which I would do ten times a day to make sure it looked beautiful and appetizing and all filled in. On one occasion it struck me: I noticed two pairs of hands behind the counter slicing beautifully and they were young hands and it was Niki’s hands and Josh’s hands. They were slicing smoked salmon; the kind that is sliced so thin you can read the New York Times through it. But it was that moment, seeing them doing that thing that we’ve been doing for a hundred years that made me proud.
I know a sign hangs in Russ and Daughters that reads: De gustibus non est disputandum (“There is no disputing about tastes”). I recently saw a grown man at a local bagel store order a cinnamon-raisin bagel with cream cheese and lox. Would you have allowed such an aberration?
I would take that sign off the wall for that. I wouldn’t serve that guy that thing. That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever in any part of the culinary spectrum. De gustibus non est disputandum is useful when you are trying to figure out which fish is the best -- I have ten different kinds of smoked salmon and nine different kinds of herring -- but not when you are trying to make a combination that violates all the rules like that. The phrase doesn’t apply there.
If you could take one thing to eat from Russ and Daughters to a desert island, what would it be?
Here’s the construction I most often go to. It would be a plain bagel. It would have plain cream cheese--I’m a bit of a purist. It would have some salmon. It could be Gaspé or Scottish or Irish or whatever, but salmon has to be fat. It tastes better and it’s better for you and the old timers know that as well. Besides the salmon I would look and chose a piece of sturgeon or sable to put on top of that. I would sometimes put a very thin slice of tomato, and for me I never would put a piece of onion, but that’s me, because I find the onion sort of drowns out everything else. The tomato on the other hand adds a whole different texture to things. I would have it open-faced and it would be cut in half and I would be totally happy. That could probably be my dying meal.
Marissa Rothkopf Bates writes the blog www.sugarandspouse.com.