Smoked, Sliced & Pickled
I ordered three schmaltz herring, a container of whitefish salad, 10 bialys. He gets the basic story told, about how his impoverished grandfather Joel arrived in the United States from Poland and began peddling herring from a pushcart before opening a small storefront in He relates the ups and downs of running a business on the gritty Lower East Side of Manhattan over the course of a century. Federman himself attended Georgetown Law School and planned to flee the family profession.
When two or more customers are introduced into the schmooze, they are likely to discover things they have in common.
Beware faking it, though. Federman says. Federman is simply and nonlinearly telling stories. For one thing, they were too tired after long days in the shop. Smart enough to add up a column of numbers on a brown paper bag? Could he make change?
Mark Russ Federman - Sixth & I
Would he look good behind the counter? For them, the goal was college and a profession--a doctor, a lawyer, not a herring-seller. As expected, Russ Federman went to law school, passed the bar, and started practicing--only to discover that he wasn't happy practicing with a big uptown law firm.
After years of being pressed into work at the shop during every school vacation and holiday, he came back to the shop in to learn the business and take some of the pressure off his aging parents. As he writes,. What was I smoking? The first day I took up my place behind the counter was the last day I practiced law. Even though I had worked there as a kid, I had no idea what it meant to be responsible for every piece of fish, every customer, and every employee every minute of the day.
It wasn't easy, stepping into the shoes of "Mr. Russ," the public face and buck-stops-here owner.
The men at the smokehouses where he bought their fish were tough, making him earn their respect, even slipping bad fish into his orders to see if he could pick them out. Even when he had retired from active duty, after 35 years on the floor, customers who saw him in the shop thought nothing of ordering him to get behind the counter and fill their requests for lox and herring.
As he writes in the beginning of the book, when one bossy elderly woman, ignoring the lines of waiting customers around her, insists that he should "make her a herring"--that is, skin, bone, and fillet a smoked herring for her while she waits, even though the case is filled with ready-to-go fillets, he loses patience and pulls rank.
I went for the ultimate weapon in my arsenal. I am Mr. It took less than a second for her response. You're not Mistar Russ. Your grandfadder vas Mistar Russ. After passing on the business to his daughter Niki and nephew Josh in , he found himself suddenly, if gratefully, no longer Mr.
Mark Russ Federman
All those years, my persona was Mr. Russ, the guy behind the counter. You can get the bends, you stop too soon," he said in a recent phone interview. He already had a built-in platform--the shop--for selling the book. He got an agent, then a publisher, and then, he just had to write it. Of course, Trillin, a popular writer and longtime fan of the shop, went on to write a heartfelt introduction to the book, updating a piece he'd written about the shop back in In the early 70s, Trillin, like my own father, was taking his daughters to the shop for their first tastes of halvah, herring, kippered salmon, and pickled lox.
Now, he takes his grandchildren. As Trillin writes,. I know, because I can often be found there on a Sunday morning. But Russ Federman didn't just want to share whitefish-salad recipes and funny anecdotes of famous customers like Zero Mostel and Tony Bourdain. He wanted to capture his family's own stories, research their history, and "make the Russ family proud of what we've been doing for the past years," especially his 92 year old mother Anne and year old aunt Hattie, the two remaining original Russ daughters.
Random House sent the first two copies of the book by FedEx to his mother and aunt in Florida, where they now live.
Russ Federman opened the box with them and watched as they turned the pages peppered with old family photos. But then, they were totally thrilled. They were stopping, telling their own stories," as they went through the book.
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The book also details how the store went from neighbor herring purveyor to city institution, playing an essential part in the lives of its customers even as Jews left the Lower East Side, and the neighborhood sank into drug-fueled crime and squalor in the 70s and 80s, followed by artists and then ever-increasing gentrification over the past 20 years.
You wanted to celebrate a bris, you ordered a smoked-fish platter. Sitting shiva after a death in the family, you ordered babka and rugalach, cookies and dried fruit for noshing. From the Yom Kippur break-fast to New Year's Day or just another Sunday morning, any day was a occasion made better with lox, sturgeon, smoked chub, herring salad, even caviar.
The trick, of course, wasn't just the sterling quality of the fish; it was that the Russes had the "schmooze gene," able to remember complete customer histories, not just of their tastes in sturgeon and lox but their medical histories, their foibles, and their family trees, and able to banter back and forth across the counter so that shopping there wasn't just shopping, it was an only-in-New-York experience, even for customers who'd long since relocated to Great Neck or New Rochelle.
Now that everyone's got a crock of kraut going in the kitchen, does Russ Federman have advice for the next generation of would-be professional salmon-smokers and pickle makers dreaming of a storefront in Oakland or Bushwick? Forget cutesy names and logos, he tells me.
Because if your name is on it, every product, every bag, every thing that goes through that door has your ego, your personality, your life on it. Do that for years.