Culture & Conversation

The house that herring built

The four-generation NYC family dynasty, Russ & Daughters

The four-generation NYC family dynasty, Russ & Daughters

Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From The House That Herring Built, by Mark Russ Federman, Shocken Books

When Joel Russ, the author’s grandfather, began selling herring from a barrel on a pushcart on the New York City’s Lower East Side in 1907, he had no idea that he would be starting a family dynasty that would continue for four generations.

This book recounts the colourful memories of the Russ family and their landmark store, opened in 1914, and of the Lower East Side in general. These reminiscences include detailed descriptions of the fish industry, from the lake to the processing plant to the freezer and, finally, to the Sabbath table where the fish are eaten.

Russ Federman ran Russ & Daughters for 30 years. During that time he heard many stories from customers, suppliers, kibitzers and regular neighbourhood folk.

Recalled with passion and humour, his customers’ stories give an almost barometric reading of changes in the area. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Lower East Side had a heavy Jewish immigrant population. Poverty deepened during the Great Depression and, as Jews left, a diverse Latino population moved in. Crime, drugs and violence hit the streets. Some erstwhile customers were no longer willing to travel to the area. But starting in the 1960s, many of the old tenements were taken over by artists and writers. Over time, the area became very posh.  Keeping up with these changes, the store adopted its products to cater to a more upbeat and trendy set. Gefilte fish has been replaced by gefilte tofu.

An appetizing store sells appetizers, delicacies for before or after the main course, some served with bagel: herring in brine, pickles in barrels, marinated olives, pickled tomatoes and cucumbers, babka, halvah and freshly baked pastries, along with assort cheeses and sour creams. Such stores stock fish and dairy products but not meat, in keeping with the kosher practices of the predominantly Jewish customers.  From the 1920s to the 1950s, there were about 25 appetizing stores operating in the Lower East Side, but only Russ & Daughters made it past the second generation.

Mark Russ Federman’s mother was one of three daughters of Joel Russ. Mark was literally raised in the world of fish, and he offers many juicy tidbits:  What is a herring pairing? What is kadoiwaski? (Answer: the Japanese word for herring.) What is the correct way to taste caviar? What is a Super Heebster? (Answer: A sesame bagel with horseradish cream cheese, whitefish salad and wasabi-flavoured flying fish roe).

Diverse characters populate the book: for example, a Chassidic rabbi who, during the week, sells diamonds and whose family comes from the same Jewish village in Poland as the Russ family; a Jew for Jesus who had to be let go from the store for proselytizing to the customers; old-time patrons who were insulted when offered the fish from the top of the barrel, thinking this was a lower-quality product; the two remaining Russ sisters, now retired and living in Florida, who attribute their mental acuity to eating lots of smoked, pickled and cured fish; and, finally, a businessman known as Lobster who was involved in strong-arm tactics in the smoked fish industry.

Federman has a gift for story-telling, applying his sharp sense of humour seasoned with a sprinkling of wicked Yiddish expressions and old jokes that he has a knack for making seem as fresh as a newly caught herring. This book is as delightful as a moist, tasty slice of pickled fish. The first morsel is delicious and, as you read on, an array of spicy flavours hit your sensory organs. Before you even finish the book, it will send you running to the market for a dozen kippers and a pound of smoked salmon with olives on the side.


Leslie Lutsky is host of Jewish Digest on Radio Centreville and also runs walking tours of Jewish Montreal. He has a voracious appetite for herring.

-photo: Edo, Flrk Media Commons

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