Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Note: "The House That Herring Built" -- an amazing evening with Mark Russ Federman


"As far as I know, I am the only Jewish father who was disappointed that his kid became a doctor. I was thinking sturgeon, not surgeon."
-- from Russ & Daughters: Reflections and
Recipes from The House That Herring Built

by Ken

The son in question is Noah, the older of Mark Russ Federman's two children, Noah. He tells us in his new memoir that he had fantasies of working side by side with his son in the family business, To Mark's considerable surprise, his daughter Niki came back into the family business, Russ & Daughters, the legendary appetizing store on Houston Street in New York's Lower East Side. He consoles himself with the thought that Noah is a good doctor.

As disappointed as Mark was by Noah's defection, he was just as startled when his daughter Niki, in 2006, asked if she could come back into the business, which she had worked in growing up on a fill-in basis, like most Russ family members. That happened in 2006, four years after Niki's cousin Josh (the son of Mark's sister Tara), a chemical engineer, asked his dumbfounded uncle if he could come into the business.

Today Kiki and Josh are the fourth-generation owners of Russ & Daughters, and Mark is the author of this sensational book telling the story of an immigrant family's struggle to survive and establish itself in the New World. In a talk Tuesday night in Elebash Recital Hall of New York's City University Graduate Center, he stressed that in those first two generations in particular -- the generations of his grandfather, Joel Russ, and of Joel's three daughters and their husbands -- their story was like that of hundreds of immigrants who were struggling to survive and establish themselves on the Lower East Side, the next goal being to escape the crowded, foul conditions of the Lower East Side.

I can hardly begin to explain why I was so enthralled Tuesday night. I laughed. I cried. I don't remember when I had such a good time. On the simplest level, Mark is a great storyteller. I suspect he could have gone on for hours, and the packed house would have happily stayed with him. But beyond that, he had a heckuva story to tell, or rather stories -- of the four generations of his family, of the history represented by the changes that have taken place on the Lower East Side, and of how we understand and remember the past while tucking it into the future.

Those were hard times in New York when Mark, then a busy practicing uptown lawyer, startled his parents by telling them that he wanted to come into the business, with a view to taking it over from them. It made sense, he thought. He was itching for a change, and they were tired from the grind, and his father in particular was increasingly ailing. He thought he could combine overseeing the business with practicing law, on a less constricting basis than he was finding in his law firm. However, as he told us and tells every interviewer, on his first day back in the store in his new capacity, he knew that his law career was over.

The first thing Mark noted when he took the podium earlier this week was that the packed house was of "an appropriate age" -- old enough, he explained, to need little explaining about what it is he does, or did, in the 30 years that he presided over Russ & Daughters. He said that part of what got him through the difficult decades of the '70s, 80s, and '90s was the fact that his name was on the door. He took that as a warranty to customers that they were getting the best fish, the best everything, that was offered for sale on the premises.

Mark's mother, Anne Russ Federman, is the youngest of the three eponymous Russ "Daughters," and is still living in Florida at age 92. His Aunt Hattie Russ Gold lives there too, pushing 100. The middle sister, Ida Russ Schwartz, died at age 86, but had long since departed from the business along with her difficult first husband. Mark says the circumstances of their departure -- jumped or pushed? -- are still unclear.

Mark took pains to note that his grandfather wasn't an early feminist. He was simply making optimal business use of the resources he had. He didn't have sons; he had three daughters. Each of them, when her time came, had been required to give up any thought of schooling, not to mention a social life, to come into the business, because that was the only way the family could make a living. Joel understood that the presence of three attractive young women in the store could be good for business -- and to this day the phrase "good for business" seems to be a discussion-clincher in the Russ family.

In the book Mark tells us, for example, that he invoked the "good for business" meme in 2005, when he persuaded his mother and his Aunt Hattie, to make the heroic trip up from Florida to participate in a presentation that Niki Federman had arranged to do involving four generations of her family, moderated by writer Calvin Trillin -- without having ascertained whether her mother, her aunt, or longtime customer and family friend Trillin were willing or able to participate. Mark agreed to tackle his mother and aunt, but told Niki she would have to deal with Trillin. That turned out to be no problem at all. Trillin, it turns out, is crazy about Niki, all the more so now with his own daughters both on the West Coast.

I might add at this point that most of my "involvement" with Russ and Daughters is via decades' worth of food writings of Trillin, whom Mark describes as "the poet laureate of Russ & Daughters." I'm not sure that I've ever actually bought anything in the store. In recent years anytime I've passed it, it has been so mobbed that I wouldn't venture inside. But I had my own formative experience with a similar appetizing store in Brooklyn called Hymie's, which had been around long enough that my grandmother was a regular customer when my mother was growing up, and when she moved back into the neighborhood decades later, Hymie's wife, Rose, recognized her. Hymie, like Joel Russ, was a terror to customers, while Rose, like Joel's three daughters, were loved by customers.

By that time Mark too the CUNY Graduate Center podium Tuesday night we had seen a brief video, which I assume is the one that was made for Niki's presentation in 2005, with at least some of the interview with Anne and Hattie. As Mark is quick to point out, the answers to every question involved, shall we say, discussion, between the sisters.. This is, apparently, a family tradition. You get a vivid image of what life was like when Grandpa Joel, his three daughters, and one by one the newly added sons-in-law were all working in that tiny store.

It was an amazing evening. By the end I knew I had to have the book, and so I joined the line to buy a copy. I didn't really care about having it signed, but I hung around in that line too, thumbing through the book (looking, for example, for the promised photo of Grandpa Joel, the "high holiday" type of only-moderately-observant Jew, in a white linen suit, with his older brother Shmemendel (yes, Shmemendel, an amalgam of Shmuel and Mendel), an observant Jew who worked briefly in the business. I found it -- it's a great picture.

I've only begun to work my way through the book, but already I see that the storytelling is as compelling as Mark's live storytelling. One story I'll especially want to follow is that of his grandmother, Bella, Joel's wife. In their 50 years together, no one seems to have spotted a moment of public affection between them; she called him "Russ," and he called her a Yiddish word we're told means "you there."

Like most of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, Bella came from a shtetl, but in her case it was a farm, and she never adapted to the horrendously crowded urban conditions of the Lower East Side. Joel discovered that she wasn't of much help in the store. Mark says that in he trusting soul she was apt to ask customers how much they thought they owed, or how much change they should get. After a couple of abortive attempts to move the family out of the ghetto, Joel finally moved them to a two-family house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with room for a garden where Bella regained some of her old self.

It was, alas, the Depression, and in 1932 two bankers turned up at the door to foreclose on the two mortgages Joel had taken on the property, giving him the choice of surrendering his business or the house. Naturally, since he had to make a living, he gave up the house, and moved the whole family back to an especially woeful apartment on the Lower East Side. The move back was hard on a lot of the family, but hardest most of all on Bella. Mark's mother said it broke her spirit, and Mark says that, though she lived a long time after that, she never recovered -- not even when Joel finally moved the family to a house out in the Rockaways.

Of course Mark tells the story way better -- tells it in a way that etched it in at least my brain. He is, by the way, a fantastic interview subject, and I heartily recommend the interviews he gave to Publishers' Weeklythe blog Paper, and Bay Area Bites. Naturally much of the same material is covered, but it's amazing how little literal duplication there is. Clearly all those years of developing relationships with the store's customers and mastering the art of schmoozing have developed his talking skills to a fine art.

Let me warn you that reading the interviews won't be enough. I'm betting you'll still have to have the book.


At 2:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently had some pickled herring from Russ and Daughters and it was heaven in a container. The cream sauce perfect and there were copious freshly sliced onions.

Even better was the bare 1/8-lb. of silky smoked sturgeon, probably the last I'll eat in my lifetime, given the extreme depletion of sturgeon stocks and the $60/lb price. When I was a child, it was an incredibly expensive treat. My mother would buy two ounces for three of us to share a nibble apiece. She would get the counter guy to slice off the extra skin on the filet that was left after slicing the fish. This was free, and she'd scrape the last essence of sturgeon off like it was gold.

I've come to believe that smoked and pickled fish is truly the food of the gods.

At 5:54 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Anon.

I was trying to keep my piece under some kind of control, but one kind of thing I wished I'd written more about was Mark Russ Federman's extensive discussion of relations with customers, which was at the heart of his business those 30 years -- not to mention of the family members who manned the counters before him. And then there's the whole question of how Russ & Daughters customers have changed over time.

Just too much to cover!



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