Bagels and lox lovers, take note: next Tuesday you can finally get your hands on Mark Russ Federman’s book “Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built” (Shocken). In advance of the release, photographer Matthew Hranek — a devoted Russ & Daughters fan for 20 years — interviewed Mark at the iconic establishment on New York’s Lower East Side to talk lox, the history of the business, and the lengths customers will go to to get their fix. Matthew, who met Mark when they became neighbors in Park Slope, Brooklyn, says, “It has been a pleasure getting to know him, his family and all that smoked salmon.”
Tell me how herring built this institution of Russ and Daughters (literally). Why was herring so popular at the time Russ and Daughters opened?
It was poverty, pestilence, and pogroms that drove Grandpa Russ out of Eastern Europe. It was herring that brought him to America. His sister, Chana, had preceded him here and had established a herring business on The Lower East Side. That business consisted of a few barrels of schmaltz herring located in a stall between two tenement buildings. Chana paid the $25 sponsorship fee for her brother. That was a lot of money in 1907 since herring was sold for 5 cents each, or “3 for 10.” After a while, Chana had Joel set up with a pushcart filled with herring on Hester Street. The rest is history. Herring was a cheap source of protein. An entire family could have a meal of herring, potatoes, onions, and bread. Lots of starch and a little protein.
How many original daughters were there? Who is still alive and how old are they?
There were three Russ daughters: Hattie, Ida, and Anne [my mother]. Ida, the middle daughter, died 12 years ago at age 86. Hattie will be 100 in 2 months. Anne will be 92 in 4 months. They live in the same shtetl in Florida.
What is your go-to item to nosh on at Russ and Daughters?
Sturgeon. It is the Queen of all smoked fish.
For the novice — what should not be missed?
Where does the term “lox” come from?
“Lox” is from the German word “lachs,” meaning salmon. The original lox was salt cured, un-smoked salmon; and the best part of the lox was the portion cut from the belly of the fish. We still sell real “belly lox” in our store, plus eight to 10 varieties of smoked salmon.
The lines at Russ are infamous around holidays. How long was the biggest line and what do you think the wait was if you where at the end of that line?
The line is not physically so long now that we have instituted a number system. Customers take a number and then maybe go down the block for a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s. But most hang in and around the store enjoying the scene and making new friends; sometimes new relationships. It’s fun — a real New York experience.
Was there ever an exception when someone was allowed to cut that line? (celebrity, pregnancy, etc.)
No exceptions for celebrities –not even for pregnancy. Last year a pregnant woman began to have contractions while waiting her turn. She refused to go to the hospital until her number was called.
What is your personal favorite variety of smoked salmon?
I love them all. That’s why they’re in the store. Sometimes my genes call out for old fashioned belly lox.
When it comes to bagels are you a plain or seeded man?
Plain for me.