Russ & Daughters on New York's Lower East Side belongs on every gourmand's list of essential destinations.
Its fresh bagels with homemade cream cheese and razor thin smoked salmon are quite literally from another world. For 100 years, this culinary and cultural institution has been doing it all from scratch, sourcing the world's best fish and using all-natural ingredients.
It all began with Joel Russ, who emigrated from Eastern Europe in 1907. "Grandpa" Russ was part of a stream of a million and half Jews who fled the region between 1880 and 1923 who ended up in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Russ started out selling herring from a pushcart. At five cents apiece, the fish were a cheap and popular source of protein for the immigrants living in overcrowded tenements.
A few years later, when Russ had saved enough money, he opened his appetizing store. The word "appetizing" is used here as a noun that refers to the prepared foods that can be found at Jewish gatherings from funerals to Bar Mitzvahs.
Whatever you do, don't call Russ & Daughters a deli. There is no "meat" sold there, said former owner Mark Russ Federman.
"Because of Jewish dietary laws, dairy and meat products could not be mixed on the plate and generally not in the same store," he said.
(By the way, if it's meat you're after, there just happens to be another New York City institution, Katz's Delicatessen, a few doors down from Russ & Daughters on East Houston Street.)
Joel Russ gave his shop the name Russ & Daughters because of his three daughters, who worked in and eventually ran the shop together with their husbands. They became famous for the very best smoked and pickled fish - herring, salmon, lox, sable and sturgeon. And while the full experience can only be found in one location, most of the Russ family foods can now be ordered online and shipped all across the country.
Mark Russ Federman is the son of Joel Russ's youngest daughter and, in his new memoir, "Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House That Herring Built," he tells the fascinating story of the family business through the ages.
"In 1932, in the height of the Depression, two bankers showed up at … [Russ & Daughters’] doorstep and said, ‘Mr. Russ your business or your house.’ And so he gave up his house to the bankers and moved the family back to the Lower East Side to a terrible tenement. Cockroach-filled tenement."
Mark Russ Federman and his six cousins were raised to become lawyers and engineers, not to work at the store. But after practicing law for the better part of a decade, Mark Russ Federman found himself wanting to be at the store.
"I was at a fancy firm uptown," he said. "My father was increasingly ill from a heart condition. They were talking about either selling or closing Russ & Daughters."
Now, Russ Federman's daughter, Niki Russ Federman, and nephew, Joshua Russ Tupper, own and run the store. Russ Tupper left his career as a chemical engineer to follow in his ancestors' footsteps. He's focused on growing the online business, which now accounts for 25 percent of the shop's earnings. With his hoodie and jeans, Tupper resembles the hipster crowd that has transformed the Lower East Side.
Thanks to him and cousin Niki Russ Federman, Russ & Daughters begins its second century offering the same delicious Jewish delicacies and rich culture to discriminating palates in New York and beyond. Tradition is important - and even better when it's delicious.