Russ and Daughters is one of those iconic New York food spots that has cultural capital well outside the five boroughs. From its uber-humble beginnings as a herring pushcart in 1907, the "appetizing store" has become a Jewish food juggernaut, shipping millions of fish around the world, gaining the die-hard loyalty of foodies ranging from Anthony Bourdain to Calvin Trillin, and making a guest appearance this season on Louie.
Mark Russ Federman, author of the new memoir Russ and Daughters: The House That Herring Built, recently hosted a brunch at the JCCSF. The event sold out well in advance, a testament to the dearth of appetizing stores in the Bay Area. SFoodie caught up with Federman, a "born schmoozer," for a lengthy discussion of smoked fish, perceptions of ethnic food, and gentrification.
What made you decide to write a memoir?
My goal was to occupy myself now that I was no longer going to be "Mr. Russ." Most of my life I was behind the counter, filleting, slicing, dicing, wiping down the scales, giving orders to staff, generally presiding over store. It became clear there were too many Mr. Russes in a small space, with my daughter and my nephew running the shop. I needed something to do with my time!
How was the writing process?
Therapeutic. You sound young, but at some point you'll understand this. If you spend your life developing a persona, what happens when you can no longer be that persona? Writing kept me from getting the bends when I left my old self behind.
How's the initial feedback on the book?
The most important audience is the two living Russ daughters, my mother, 92, and my aunt Hattie, who is going to be 100 in a month. Their minds are sharp from eating fish oil all their lives but their bodies are fairly shot from spending 10 hours a day on their feet. I was really afraid they'd be like "What did you have to tell everybody that for?"
They just read the book about a week ago, and they were thrilled. There was tears in their eyes, it made them nostalgic about all the things that happened.
The good old days?
Actually, no. They were very clear that there was no such thing as "the good old days." Life was hard, and they were always saying I had no idea how hard they had to work. In a sense, this book was a validation of all that labor, that it all meant something.
What do you mean?
When they were doing this, food was not celebrated. This is a fairly recent vintage where you've got food networks and hot chefs and celebrity this and that. Food was food, that's it, and on the Lower East Side, it was ethnic food. The whole notion of "culinary history" is a newer development, but the book gives some sense of where Russ and Daughters fits in.
How have mainstream perceptions of your food shifted?
It's gone from humble herring to haute cuisine and bagel and lox has gone mainstream. Russ and Daughters has been doing it for so long, everybody says, "Well they must be doing something right." I've tried to give my daughter and nephew a sense of perspective on all this. I mean, the LES used to be hell on earth; now it's incredibly trendy. It's hard to fathom.
Are you basically serving the same product?
Well yes, but the options have increased a lot. It used to be you could order salted herring, then pickled. We gave it a basic Jewish pickle, with water, sugar, vinegar, and pickling spices. The art is in how long it was pickled, and the type of pickling spices. This evolved into the first basic sauce for the herring, sour cream. Now we do 10 things to that same fillet: curried sauce, mustard and dill sauce, fennel, lemon and ginger sauce. Herring lends itself to versatility in saucing. Swedes make a lot of herring in sauce, so now we have half of New York's Scandinavian population visiting our store.
What's your relationship with San Francisco?
I actually lived in San Francisco for two years when I was in the Army. I was stationed at the Oakland Army base, but they ran out of housing. It's wild, they gave me an allowance to find an apartment in the city. I found a place on Parnassus, near the UCSF medical center. I was pretty close to Haight-Ashbury, where the anti-war movement was strong. So I'd spend the day in Oakland on the base, then come home and party in the Haight. Eventually the Army realized I was having too much fun and sent me to Vietnam.