The former owner/proprietor of the beloved appetizing store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side tells the delightful, mouthwatering story of an immigrant family’s journey from a pushcart in 1907 to “New York’s most hallowed shrine to the miracle of caviar, smoked salmon, ethereal herring, and silken chopped liver” (The New York Times Magazine).
When Joel Russ started peddling herring from a barrel shortly after his arrival in America from Poland, he could not have imagined that he was giving birth to a gastronomic legend. Here is the story of this “Louvre of lox” (The Sunday Times, London): its humble beginnings, the struggle to keep it going during the Great Depression, the food rationing of World War II, the passing of the torch to the next generation as the flight from the Lower East Side was beginning, the heartbreaking years of neighborhood blight, and the almost miraculous renaissance of an area from which hundreds of other family-owned stores had fled.
Filled with delightful anecdotes about how a ferociously hardworking family turned a passion for selling perfectly smoked and pickled fish into an institution with a devoted national clientele, Mark Russ Federman’s reminiscences combine a heartwarming and triumphant immigrant saga with a panoramic history of twentieth-century New York, a meditation on the creation and selling of gourmet food by a family that has mastered this art, and an enchanting behind-the-scenes look at four generations of people who are just a little bit crazy on the subject of fish.
Color photographs © Matthew Hranek
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Mark Russ Federman, grandson of founder Joel Russ, took over the running of Russ & Daughters from his parents in 1978 and turned it over to the fourth generation, his daughter, Niki, and nephew Josh, in 2009. He has appeared individually and on panels at the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Public Library, and the conference of the Association of Food Journalists, among other venues. Mark and Russ & Daughters were most recently featured on the PBS documentary The Sturgeon Queens; on Lidia Bastianich’s PBS series Lidia Celebrates America; and on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.
Read an Excerpt
The Art of the Schmooze
You’re either born a great schmoozer or you’re not. Grandma Russ was always happy to schmooze. Since she spoke so little English, her schmoozing was limited to Yiddish with the pushcart vendors on Orchard Street. They were happy to schmooze with her because she was one of their few customers who never hondled. Grandpa Russ, on the other hand, had neither the time nor the patience to schmooze. But Aunt Hattie and Aunt Ida were great schmoozers; they could charm a herring right out of the barrel. My mom took after her father; no patience for schmoozing there. But my dad was a natural-born schmoozer, and the customers lined up to be waited on by him. I was lucky enough to inherit the family schmoozing gene. Maria is a terrible schmoozer. Whatever the opposite of a schmoozer is, that’s Maria. Fortunately for our business, Niki is an even better schmoozer than I am. Josh is not a natural-born schmoozer. Until he came into the business he was an engineer, and they are not known for their schmoozing skills. But he has other essential qualities. For example, Josh finishes one task before starting another, a definite asset in running a business. Schmoozers, on the other hand, have difficulty getting things done; they’re too busy schmoozing. But as I have watched Josh run the business these past few years, I have seen his ability to schmooze improve along with his slicing skills. Customers now line up to wait for Josh to slice their salmon and listen to their stories. Behind the counter, he has become his Grandpa Herbie, world-renowned salmon slicer and schmoozer.
People who are born schmoozers often go into retail businesses, usually small, family-owned ones. They like, and maybe even need, the personal interactions such places offer. People shop in small retail stores because they, too, like—and maybe need—that same personal interaction. Among people who work in retail, the great schmoozer doesn’t just talk but also knows how to listen. The ability to be a good listener is derived from a basic love of people. This must be genuine. It cannot be faked. There is no doubt in my mind that this joy in listening to people, in hearing their stories, sharing in their nachas and their tsuris, is genetic in origin. The schmoozing gene will soon be mapped.
Some things distinguish a great schmoozer from a merely good one. The ability to make the customer feel as if he or she is the only thing the schmoozer is interested in at that given moment is essential. To achieve this, you yourself must feel that this customer is your friend, and that the interaction is personal as well as commercial. Of course, the schmoozer must not forget that he is running a business, so this is where multitasking comes in. While listening intently, eyes and ears fixed on the customer, the schmoozer will be able to notice that there are dirty spots on the showcase, herrings in disarray, salads that need to be filled in, and a ringing phone that needs to be answered. A truly great schmoozer can direct other people to accomplish these tasks without ever taking his focus away from the customer with whom he is schmoozing. A good memory is essential, even if you are a natural-born schmoozer. Memory for names is a given, not only the name of the customer as he or she walks in the door but the names of the customer’s spouse and children, as well as any tsuris or nachas related during the last visit. A quality schmoozer remembers what the customer bought last time, which part of the fish he prefers, how she likes it sliced. The perfect schmooze must be a seamless resumption of your last conversation, even if the customer’s last visit was six months ago. For example:
The good schmoozer: “Hello, Mrs. Schwartz. How’s your daughter Rebecca?”
The great schmoozer: “Hello, Mrs. Schwartz. How’s your daughter Rebecca? Did she recover from that twisted ankle? Did you help take care of her two kids, Betsy and Andy? Your grandchildren are so adorable. And smart, too.”
The great schmoozer will attempt to bring other customers into the schmooze. When two or more customers are introduced into the schmooze, they are likely to discover things they have in common: their kids go to the same school, their grandparents came from the same shtetl in Poland, they used the same “top” doctor for hip-replacement surgery. This provides them with a more unique experience, a story to tell over the salmon and bagels when they get home. The schmoozer is humble, more of a good listener than a good talker. While the customers may ask the schmoozer personal questions, that is merely a rhetorical device. They don’t really want to hear about you; they want to talk about themselves. And since they are spending their money in your store, your conversation should be about them. The schmoozer must be able to distinguish between nachas and tsuris, and show the appropriate amount of joy or sympathy, depending on the individual situation. This is not always as easy as it seems. Of course, a birth, bris, bar/bat mitzvah, or wedding is clearly a major nachasdik life event that requires a great display of empathetic joy. Illness, death, and investments with Bernie Madoff clearly fit into the tsuris category. But be careful: divorce, which could be tsuris for the son who is being divorced, might be regarded as a joyful occasion by the mother who never liked her daughter-in-law in the first place.
I learned something very interesting during my years of schmoozing with my customers: the less you say, the greater the aura of knowledge and wisdom you acquire. From years of schmoozing, I came to be regarded by some of my customers as a chochom, a wise man, and I was often asked for my opinions about politics, finance, international relations, religion, and even car repair. Of course, true schmoozer and chochom that I am, I would never give them.
Truthfully, beyond the fish we sell, I know very little about anything else. It is assumed that I am a repository of great bits of worldly knowledge just because for thirty years I stood behind the counter in the same store in the same neighborhood and sold the same fish products that my family had been selling for a hundred years. So I try to accept the role with some grace, and have grown a beard—by now a very white beard. I continue to say very little and listen very well, and at least try to look the part.
Table of Contents
Foreword Calvin Trillin ix
1 Our History, Sliced Thin 3
Mushroom Barley Soup 39
2 The Family: Growing Up Fishy 41
Lox, Eggs, and Onions 74
3 The Employees: The Extended Family 75
Herring in Parchment 86
4 The Customers: I'll Have a Quarter Pound of Lox, One Filleted Herring, and Your Kishkes 87
Beet, Apple, and Herring Salad 104
Fruit Strudel 106
5 The Neighborhood: From Pushcart to Posh 107
Egg Cream 125
Cheese Blintzes 126
6 The Products: What We Sell 127
Whitefish and Baked Salmon Salad 157
Smoked Salmon Tartare 158
7 The Holidays: All Year Round 159
Potato Latkes 178
8 The Business Model: Our Way 179
Bagel Chips 190
Bagel Pudding with Prunes and Raisins 191
9 The Legacy: A Burden or a Blessing; Kvetch or Kvell 193
Lox Chowder 202
What People are Saying About This
“When I was a child, my father and I would often stop at Russ & Daughters on Sundays, on our way to Brooklyn to visit cousins. It was there, in that friendly, wonderful store, that I learned the difference between nova and lox, poppy seed and plain, cream cheese and farmer cheese, sable and sturgeon. And now I am continuing the family tradition. Jude, my two-year-old granddaughter, just visited the store and started learning about the many types of herring, which she loves. I will start reading this book to her just as soon as she can enjoy a bagel with Baltic salmon and cream cheese.”
“The grandson of the founder of J. Russ Cut Rate Appetizing (the name changed to Russ & Daughters in 1935) tells a remarkable story of family foresight and resiliency, and gives fascinating details of early life among the teeming streets of New York’s Lower East Side in the first decades of the century. . . . Including precious pictures and recipes, this work offers a savory wealth of social history, told humorously and endearingly.”
“The best thing in the world is to go to Russ & Daughters. The next-best thing in the world is to read Russ & Daughters.”
“Forget the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty . . . New York City’s greatest living institution is very likely Russ & Daughters: a temple of uniquely New York deliciousness, Zen-like perfection, and a repository of generations of wisdom and experience. Mark Russ Federman’s book is a story not just about the food that made New York great, but a deeply felt personal history. When visiting a new city for the first time, I’ve always asked the question: ‘What do they do here better than anywhere else?’ When visiting New York City for the first time, the answer is always ‘Russ & Daughters.’ ”
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