Russ & Daughters: Family, Food, and Change

If you’ve ever been to Russ & Daughers, the tiny Lower East Side institution that New Yorkers go to for all things smoked, pickled, or spread on a bagel, you might wonder how much of a journey could be captured in a book about the shop’s history. It seems such a remnant of old New York — surely it just popped up about a century ago and has stood there sturdily since.

Luckily, in his new book Russ & Daughers: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built(with a foreword by Calvin Trillin), Mark Russ Federman is here to set us straight. Federman’s grandfather Joel, a Polish immigrant, started what would be the family biz hawking herring from a pushcart, then opening an actual store in 1914. Joel’s three daughters became his employees, and so the store’s name was a no-brainer when it was finally christened Russ & Daughers in 1934. Federman, in one of many morsels of trivia, explains the appeal of the unique name: plenty of places were calling themselves So-and-So & Sons, but nobody else had “& Daughters” over their door. This may have had something to do with the store’s success over the years, as it survived the Great Depression and one of New York City’s toughest eras (the crime-plagued 70s and 80s) in one of its toughest (at the time) neighborhoods.

Maybe it was the name, but it also probably had something to do with the goods. Federman, who ran the place for thirty years before retiring in 2009, describes his boyhood initiation into the family trade, visiting suppliers at the crack of dawn with his grandfather to find the best fish. Federman is conversational, self-deprecating, and good with an anecdote. There’s no substitute for the joy and satisfaction you get from visiting the shop itself, but Federman’s book is a close second.

Illustrator Nathan Gelgud on "Russ & Daughters" by Mark Russ Federman, 2013.