Smoked, Sliced & Pickled
New York City's Russ & Daughters is a century-old shrine to lox and bagels, herring, smoked salmon, caviar, and the rest.
On East Houston Street between Allen and Orchard on Manhattan's gentrified Lower East Side sits Russ & Daughters Appetizers, a century-old shrine consecrated to lox and bagels, herring, smoked salmon, caviar, chopped liver, and the rest. Today a fourth generation of Russes manages the business that their great-grandfather built from a pushcart in what was then a teeming Jewish ghetto. That this tiny gem should still flourish under the same family—a fifth-generation daughter has recently been born—is an urban miracle, a testament to the unfailing regenerative powers of New York and its people.
Mark Russ Federman, the third-generation proprietor, has now retired and written "Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House That Herring Built," a memoir that captures the spirit of the shop: its obsession with quality and service, its understated cheerfulness, the family embrace that one feels as a customer. "You're either born a great schmoozer or you're not," Mr. Federman writes of this Proustian quality that involves listening as well as talking and "derives from a basic love of people." So why didn't Mr. Federman follow his customers as the second and third Jewish generations moved uptown or to the suburbs? Because, he writes, "I knew in my kishkes (guts) that we were in our rightful place in the world. Would a herring really taste like a herring if it were bought on the Upper East Side or in Great Neck?" Would schmoozing be the same in Westchester?
The decision to stay took courage and a deep commitment to place. "I didn't simply 'inherit' Russ & Daughters. . . . I earned the right to buy the business from the preceding generation," Mr. Federman writes. "I did however inherit the customers. I'm retired now but I can still hear them placing their orders . . . I need a whitefish . . . It should be a nice one . . . My son, the doctor, is coming home for dinner . . . No, not that one. The one next to it. No, that one's too dried out. Why don't you go to the back and get me a fresh one?" And Mr. Federman probably did. Retailers large and small will learn from this book the patient cultivation of customer loyalty while ethnic loyalists will find a dozen or so authentic recipes for such classics as cheese blintzes and salmon tartar and an irresistible steamed herring in parchment.
Mr. Federman's career began in childhood when he and his father would leave the house at five in the morning and drive in their bright red truck to the Brooklyn smokehouses "looking for the one place that would satisfy my father that morning with the quality" of fish he wanted for his store. "The sights, the smells, the tastes—in a smokehouse everything assaults your senses at once. Cavernous rooms with soot and smoke-blackened walls. Intense smells, some sweet, others acrid. All manner of fish in their briny baths in huge steel vats, hanging from their tails punctured by wooden hooks, splayed out on racks."
Mr. Federman didn't at first plan to go into the business, though, and went to law school instead. After serving as an Army lawyer in Vietnam, he ended up at an uptown firm where schmoozing is bought and sold by the hour. For this life he was ill-suited; it violated the imprinted memory of three generations in the fish business. In 1978, he decided to keep Russ & Daughters in the family. His plan was to help his parents run the store part-time and practice law part-time. But "the first day I took up my place behind the counter was the last day I practiced law. . . . I began earning my Ph.D. (professional herring degree)."
From the beginning he had a problem with Sidney, a long-serving counter man who ran the store as if it were his and treated Mr. Federman as an interloper, a nuisance. "Sidney could best be described as a farbissener, someone who is bitter and angry at the world and whose greatest pleasure is to make those around him just as miserable." When Mr. Federman felt he had learned enough about the business, he retired Sidney and hired a few old-timers for busy weekends—"Hy, Hymie, Al and Dave had once owned their own appetizing stores but were now waiting for the final exodus: Florida or Beth David Cemetery. . . . They told me when they would work, how much they would get paid, and how to run the store. . . . They couldn't get along with each other either. At times they would face off behind the counter with lox knives."
By this time the old neighborhood had changed dramatically. Latinos occupied the crumbling tenements. Two Dominican cousins, Herman Vargas and Jose Reyes, were now peeling onions, pickling herrings and washing dishes in the back of the store. "They did their jobs exceptionally well and with a positive attitude. About two years after I took over the business I had finally had it with the motley crew of lox-slicing prima donna countermen that I had inherited. One day, in a fit of pique, I brought Jose and Herman out from the kitchen and put them behind the counter. . . . It was a bold move: placing Latinos behind the smoked fish counter in a traditional Jewish appetizing store had never been done before. This was cutting-edge."
For the customers it was something else. "This was a Jewish store, selling Jewish food, prepared and sliced by Jewish employees. . . . Some customers were merely put off, some were offended, and some walked out. Their loss. As it turned out, these two men had talents I wasn't aware of." Today both men are still behind the counter, and both speak fluent Yiddish. What Mr. Federman fails to mention is his Sherpa salmon slicer, who used to guide climbers up Mount Everest and for the past 10 years has worked beside Jose and Herman. They have taught him that a bissel cream cheese is just a light schmear, according to a recent story in the New York Times, and he can cut salmon "thin enough to read a newspaper through it."
Mr. Federman's confidence in the neighborhood has been vindicated. In the darkest days, when junkies haunted the park across the street and prostitutes dragged their johns into the store to change $100 bills so they could take their $10 fees, customers asked why Mr. Federman didn't move uptown. He would reply that "sooner or later, uptown would come downtown," and it did.
Through it all, Russ & Daughters has maintained its integrity and become a revered institution. The holiday lines along Houston Street have grown longer, and not just the holiday lines. Herring and lox have attracted a pan-ethnic following. The fourth generation has created a website and now ships orders by FedEx . But to the stores' traditional customers this operation is invisible. If great-grandfather Russ were to stop by for a plump Dutch herring, Herman would welcome him in Yiddish and the old man would feel at home.
For centuries on end philosophers have tried and failed to define the good life. Mark Federman's life as revealed here can hardly be reduced to a set of impersonal abstractions, but if philosophers are willing to settle for a case in point rather than a developed theory, let them read his marvelous book.—Mr. Epstein, the author of "Eating:
A Memoir," was for many years the editorial director of Random House.
A version of this article appeared March 2, 2013, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Smoked, Sliced & Pickled.