Behind the Scenes at Russ & Daughters

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There are many signs on the clean white walls of Russ & Daughters-the Lower East Side landmark that’s been serving smoked sable, pickled herring and slices of salmon so thin you can read the paper through them, since 1914-but the one that tells you all you need to know isn’t the jokey Lox et Veritas (a pun on Yale’s motto of light and truth); or the old-fashioned hand-painted signs that promote “Genuine Sturgeon, Imported Nuts and Caviar”; or even the one reading De gustibus non est disputandum, which is Latin for “of taste there is no dispute” and Russ-ese for “we don’t decide which fish is best, you do.”

Instead, the sign that sums the salmon-slicers’ superiority is the one that boasts a quote from Anthony Bourdain, a man known more for his barbs than his bubbly blurbs. “Russ & Daughters,” it reads, “occupies that rare and tiny place on the mountaintop reserved for those who are not just the oldest and the last-but also the best.”

Bourdain is no dummy. Russ & Daughters isn’t the only 100-year-old, fourth-generation family-owned business in town, not by a long shot, but it’s one of the very few places in that category where the word on the street, instead of “Meh, it was better way back when,” whenever when might have been, is still that the hour-long, out-the-door weekend line is worth the wait and that yes, you really do have to eat here before you die.

This is that rarity in the New York food world: The purveyor beloved by everyone from street thugs and city politicians to chefs like locavore Peter Hoffman and lion Marco Pierre White. (“It was the finest quality fish!” White enthused by recent letter.) Russ & Daughters been profiled by PBS, canonized by Martha, lauded at length by Calvin Trillin in nearly everything he writes and even immortalized in a 2008 J. Crew catalog, all for good reason. Because the hand-whipped, eat-it-by-the-spoonful scallion-cream cheese, the chocolate-covered jelly rings, the egg creams spritzed with real bottles of Brooklyn seltzer, that salmon-each bite an alchemy of smoke and fat-the tins of caviar and trays of whitefish salad and luscious chopped liver and latkes (those last few made from scratch in the back) at Russ & Daughters are just as good as when Joel Russ first handed over the title of the shop to Ida, Hattie and Anne in 1933. Adding them into the now neon-lit name, by the way, way before women’s lib.

Heck, now that there’s more herring (with cream, with onions, with curry sauce), and even more salmon (thick-cut Scottish loins, gravlax, pastrami-style, organic double-smoked Danish), and even sandwiches like the now-famous Super Heebster (whitefish and baked salmon salad, horseradish cream cheese, wasabi-roe), you could argue Russ & Daughters keeps getting better. Especially for those who shopped for 40 years before the place started toasting the bagels. (“Yes, we toast!” says the sign.)

Actually, those bagels-chewy and legit, they’re made by a local baker-weren’t around at the start either. Neither were the flatter, carb-conscious “flagels” or the mini-bagels, which oldtimers argue are actually the size a bagel should be. What was there was herring.

Like so many Jews in New York City, Joel Russ emigrated from Eastern Europe, arriving in 1907 to help his sister “with her little herring business.” They sold the Jewish staple from one of many pushcarts on the streets of the Lower East Side until Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia decided to “clean up” the city streets, pushing those carts into new indoor markets like the nearby Essex.  Luckily Russ had saved his pennies, and in 1914 he opened the tiny J. R. Russ National Appetizing at 187 Orchard Street, expanding his stock to include other smoked and cured fish, plus accoutrements like cream cheese, and then moving, by 1920, to the current home at 179 East Houston Street.

Those foods are what the second line on the neon sign means by “appetizers.” To Jews of a certain age in New York City-and their offspring, no doubt-appetizing is a noun, not an adjective.  Traditionally New York’s Jewish delis sold meat, while “appetizing shops” sold smoked sturgeon, hand-packed tins of caviar, cured salmon, pickles, whitefish salad, cream cheeses, chocolates and “all the stuff,” says Mark Russ Federman-the third-generation owner who recently handed over the business to his daughter Niki and her cousin Josh Russ Tupper-“that goes with bagels.”

Russ & Daughters is now just one of a handful of appetizing shops in the city-there’s a counter at Zabar’s and a few out in Brooklyn’s Jewish enclaves-but back in the day, they were in nearly every Jewish neighborhood, with scores on the Lower East Side alone, says Mark, who inherited the business from his mother Anne after working as a lawyer. But even with stiff competition, Russ & Daughters always held their own; Jews and gentiles from across the city made the trip for the city’s best smoked fish. (And from the city’s most beautiful servers: Joel Russ, never subtle, proudly called his daughters the Queens of Lake Sturgeon, putting the moniker on both the shopping bags and the letterhead.)

In the 1940s the shop expanded to include the space next door and added dried fruits, chocolates, nuts and sweets. Photos of a party archived in the office upstairs-a far cry from that early pushcart, the family now owns the building-show jazz trumpeters and guests in finery and feathered hats where today you order chocolate-caramel-covered matzo, some of the world’s best dried fruit and hand-cut hunks of halvah. Of course other things have changed since then, too: The customer base is now only 50 percent Jewish, there’s an espresso machine, electronic scales, online ordering, a blog cleverly called Lox Populi, and the major shift, instituted back in the 1970s but regarded by regulars as a recent revolution, of making customers take a number before being served.

And if you think the place can be chaotic now, the old way was not for passive newbies: Customers would jockey for a space in front of their favorite slicers, who would yell out “I see you! Who’s next?” Then the customer next in line would yell, “my next!” The ins and outs of calling the queue weren’t the only ropes to know: Eastern European custom calls for haggling, for jabs and barbs, explains Mark. “It’s a whole other way of interacting,” says Niki, of the old-school ways the old-timers conduct business. “I like the way the customers feel like they have ownership.”

Because they do: A vast majority are multigenerational too. “I fed her Russ & Daughters in the womb,” crows one second-generation customer of her daughter when Niki stops by her stroller to say hello.

Kibbitzing with the community is as much a part of the job as stocking herring. On a recent Saturday, the crowd includes an older lady who points to a bulging basket of bread and says, “That bagel in the middle there. Is it soft?” There’s the slew of old guys who come in to buy fish for the family and eat a half pound of chocolate-covered jelly rings while they wait. There’s Mr. Abe, who comes in nearly every Saturday afternoon; as he leaves, everyone in the shop calls out: “Goodbye Mr. Abe!” And there’s Eric: Brought first by his parents, Iraqi Jews who adopted the Ashkenazi appetizing tradition when they moved to the States, he’s about to relocate west himself, to California. “Russ & Daughters,” he jokes, “are the two things I’m gonna miss most.”

Many of these people watched Josh and Niki grow up, and saw them ride big bags of sweet onions destined for herring back to the storeroom, years before they donned the same long white coats their grandparents did. Now the cousins and co-owners work under paintings of first-generation owner Joel (“He brought in a big leather armchair and would sit under his own portrait,” says Niki) and thirdgeneration owner Mark (who still occasionally works the store).

But it wasn’t inevitable that the fourth-generation Russes would end up slicing salmon and schmearing cream cheese: Josh was an engineer while Niki worked in international relations, but when Mark wanted to retire and sell the shop, both decided to quit their day jobs. “I didn’t want it to leave the family,” says Josh, a lefty who has since learned to slice fish with his right hand beautifully.

If Niki and Josh are somewhat new to the counter-both have a few years under their belts, hardly the blink of an eye in this storied institution-much of the rest of the staff has worked there for decades, like Herman Vargas, a master-slicer with dedicated fans who started out cutting up those bags of onions in 1980. Most of them still remember the 1970s when the Lower East Side was littered with drunks and muggers instead of designers and mixologists, and on weekends the shop shuttered by nightfall. (It’s a sight yet to be seen by Anne and Hattie, who now live in Florida and are amazed to hear stories of the rebirth of their neighborhood.)

No matter the decade, however, the crowds have always been four-thick on Saturday afternoons, every head turned to the counter awaiting their turn and watching the zen-like hand-slicing, each transparent piece of salmon sliced with one smooth left-toright move of a super slender knife, the little bit of fat at the center deftly trimmed just at the end. (Everybody here makes it look easy, but a recent reality show episode where chefs Chris Cosentino and Aaron Sanchez butchered a few pounds prove it’s not.)

“There’s something about slicing,” allows Niki, who has also worked as a yoga instructor. “It’s very meditative. It puts you in this zone.” Especially on Saturdays, when the entire crowd of white-coated servers stands at the wood counters that run the length of the shop, every inch made a silky golden-brown thanks to decades of a daily dose of fish oil.

Yet slicing, while critical, isn’t the only thing a Russketeer must know. There’s the fish itself: which salmon is smokier (Scottish over Irish) or the difference between true belly lox (“real lox is not smoked, it’s salt-cured,” explains Niki) and cold-smoked Gaspé Nova (“the quintessential New York salmon,” says Niki, “thanks to its combination of the fattiness of the fish and the mild smokiness).

They also have to know what a smoked or cured fish looks like when prepared to perfection: Russ & Daughters works with a carefully curated collection of smokehouses that works to hit the freshness and flavor marks the specialty shop wants. “We pick every fish we sell, and we reject a lot,” says Niki. “After being a lawyer for nine years,” she adds, “my father thought, ‘Oh, this will be so easy.’ So he asked my grandfather, ‘How do you tell a good fish from a bad fish?” He answered, ‘You feel for a certain taste, shine, all these things, and then maybe in 15 years, you’ll be able to tell.'”

It’s exactly that year-in and year-out routine-tasting, touching, slicing, bantering-that has kept Russes and customers alike coming back for generations. But there’s also the meaning of the food itself. Something Niki says people get even if they don’t know exactly what they’re getting.

She means appetizing: “One of my missions,” she says, “is to reeducate people about that. Appetizing a food tradition that is quintessentially New York.” Take their schmaltz herring, fishy fillets that are barrel-cured and salt-brined, beloved on the Lower East Side ever since the Old World moved into the New. “You’re tapping into something, a primal experience,” says Niki. “You’re tasting history.”

And at Russ & Daughters, Anthony Bourdain would probably tell you, history always tastes pretty damn good.

Read about a party at Mark Russ Federman’s Brooklyn home where the finest minds in Jewish food discuss the history and the practice of appetizing; and check this video of the three-decades-old caviar-packing technique of José Reyes–his hands should be insured by Lloyd’s of London, says Mark–the only Russ & Daughters employee allowed to pack fish eggs.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell.