By Pia Mileaf-Patel
A piece I wrote for one of my favorite classes last year.
My great grandmother, Ethel Tamny, experienced the excitement of New York for the first time on a walk around the Lower East Side in 1922. She was twelve years old, had ten cents in her sweaty hand, and had just arrived on a steamship from Ukraine. Today she had seen an orange for the first time and had heard a brand new language, which she would end up speaking (in addition to Yiddish) for the rest of her life. Her parents were sorting out the agreement for their apartment on Rivington Street a few blocks away, and since one brother was still detained in Holland—after an injury sustained from a boiling water incident at the dye factory where he worked—and the other was detained on Ellis Island, today Ethel was all alone.
As I imagine it, Ethel was in awe of the commotion of the Lower East Side during New York’s second immigration boom. To her right, just down Orchard Street, were several boys her age playing marbles on the sidewalk, wearing nothing but their britches and tank tops. Ethel trod carefully, wary of getting a shoe stuck between the sun-warmed cobblestones. She made eye contact with a tired, sweaty peddler who was selling buttons, ribbons and thread. She could not read the New York Times headline about King George V wearing a bowler hat to the races and “upsetting fashion,” but she could make out the Yiddish headlines in the local newspapers and pamphlets, advertising tenement listings, social gatherings, matchmakings, and other services offered by the Eastern European Jewish community.
Finally, Ethel saw something to put an end to the stomach grumbling that had been growing steadily since she set foot on land. The shop was called Russ’s Cut Rate Appetizers, and in the window was a stack of doughy bialys, embellished with onion and garlic. The handmade, bagel-like treats were enough to fill Ethel, and when she walked into the small, stifling shop to buy one, she was taken away by the beautiful display of food.
Behind the counter, there were big blocks of ice, and resting on top were slabs of tender, fatty smoked salmon, salty belly lox, fresh, tangy cream cheese, smoked whitefish spread, and everything else that goes. There was pickled herring, herring in cream with onions, chopped liver, caviar, strings of dried mushrooms, bottles of cold, creamy milk--it was a closet-sized paradise among the commotion of Ethel’s new city.
Christmas Eve morning, 2014, in order for our family’s Catholic Christmas to go as planned, Ethel’s granddaughter, Maria—my mother—fought through the horde of people waiting at Russ & Daughters to take a number from the ticket machine. She estimated that it would be about four hours until her turn.
Our family’s Christmas is not complete without a plethora of Jewish appetizers. In fact, a spread from Russ & Daughters is present at most family gatherings, which goes to show that the most important part of culture is the food that comes with it.
When Maria returned to the shop, it was still bustling, as it is on every holiday. Unlike the Russ & Daughters that Ethel knew, today there is climate control and refrigeration. The shop is bigger than the original—although with a crowd like this, could any space be big enough? There are gourmet butters and jams and there are modern types of caviar, for instance the Japanese wasabi flying fish roe. And most importantly, there is a diversity of customers, as opposed to the strictly Jewish customers from the days when Ethel used to shop there.
However, if there were only one thing that makes Russ & Daughters unique, it is that for the most part, everything is the same. Every time we go in, without a doubt, behind those counters are people that my family members recognize. On the right side of the shop are jars and trays of candy, labeled with the same font as they were in the 1930’s. My childhood favorites, dark chocolate covered jelly rings, sit among the treats, which include various nut and chocolate combinations and several types of halvah.
On the left counter sits everything for which Russ & Daughters is famous and loved. There are bagels, cream cheeses, trays of chopped liver, tins of fresh, salty caviar, trays of smoked whitefish and salmon salad, bins of pickled herring, fillets of herring and cream, and dozens and dozens of types of smoked or cured fish.
For Christmas morning, my mother went easy on the ordering. After all, there would be panettone and all of the requisite Italian Catholic Christmas eats. So she bought some of the essentials. The first thing was a pound of Gaspe Nova smoked salmon. This is the order that she inherited from her father, Howard. The second thing was a quarter pound of belly lox, smoked salmon’s much saltier cousin. This order was inherited from her grandmother, Ethel.
Josh Russ Tupper, who co-owns Russ & Daughters with his cousin Niki Russ Federman, explains in a Youtube video that when most people order “lox,” they mean to order smoked salmon. Real lox is a different way of curing fish with salt, and is described as saltier than salt itself. In the video, he confides that if somebody under the age of 35 orders lox at the Russ & Daughter counter, he will ask the customer if they would like to taste it first, to make sure that they hadn’t confused the two (which is often the case).
After the smoked fish, Maria got a small carton of smoked whitefish and salmon salad, and some latkes for all of this to be eaten on top of.
My mother is a theater director, and back when Ethel was still alive, she was directing one of her first shows in New York. It was on the Lower East Side. She called her grandmother to brag a little bit, and also to invite her to the opening. “It’s right near Russ & Daughters,” Maria said to Ethel on the phone.
But the response Maria received was not the one she had expected. Instead of congratulating her on the show, Ethel responded with a dry laugh: “We worked so hard to get you out of that neighborhood.”
In the early 20th century, many immigrants came into New York City. More than 12 million were processed at Ellis Island, and after what could have been months spent in the bottom compartment of an enormous steam ship filled with stale air, some immigrants were detained, or even sent home. Coming from all over Europe, and often speaking very little or no English, some even lost their names to more American-friendly versions.
One immigrant, Joel Russ, left a permanent mark on the Lower East Side. In 1914, Russ opened Russ’s Cut Rate Appetizers on Houston Street. Appetizing stores prepare smoked or cured fish, salads (as in potato), cream cheese and other spreads, and noshes to be eaten with bagels not to be confused with Delis, where strictly meats are prepared. The Russ family and their shop held its ground through the years of the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews, the Polish and Italian Roman Catholics, the Protestant Hungarians, the Asian and Latin American immigrants, the hippies, and now the hipsters, and stands today as a landmark of the neighborhood and of the city’s Jewish culture. Somewhere around 1930, Joel Russ changed the name of his shop to Russ & Daughters, making it possibly the first American franchise with the “and Daughters” ending.
Even though the Russ & Daughters legacy had to be carried on, it took Niki Russ Federman, now co-owner of Russ & Daughters, seven years after graduating from Amherst to find her way back to the family business. Niki said to me on the phone one afternoon, “My generation precedes the fascination that we have now for food and food culture. I matured in a time before the food network and celebrity chefs. Now it’s perfectly, not just acceptable, but actually pretty cool, for highly educated people to become bakers and butchers--but not so much in my time.” She added that she needed the time to ensure that taking over Russ & Daughters was her own decision as opposed to a failure to do something different from her parents, grandparents and great grandparents.
Eventually, Niki’s point of view about Russ & Daughters’ significance shifted. As opposed to an “old school mom and pop,” she began to see the shop as having a “tremendous importance not only for family, but for New York and generations of Jewish Americans.”
Niki also feels that at Russ & Daughters, “So many of our customers have a sense and a rightful sense of ownership.” It is so embedded in the family histories of thousands of descendants of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, so it becomes “a way that so many families can connect to their own histories and their own relatives.”
Niki added that she feels now that Russ & Daughters is a gift. “Places like Russ & Daughters are losing. Our city is losing these independent businesses of character.” The shop is not only a shop, but a legacy, and a home.
However, Niki and her cousin noticed that people wanted to linger at the shop. She pointed out that occasionally, people would wander into the kitchen, looking for a place to sit down. This sparked the construction of Russ & Daughters café, the Russ & Daughters restaurant where you can sit down, just around the corner on Orchard Street.
“So now the cafe is great,” said Niki. “Now we have families come in there with three generations--sometimes four generations--of family. Tourists who don’t have a home to go to--they can come and have Russ & Daughters at Russ & Daughters. In the last three weeks we’ve had one wedding and two marriage proposals.”
Constructing the café to represent the legacy of Russ & Daughters was difficult, but ultimately successful. “It had to evoke 100 years of history,” said Niki, but we didn’t want to make it feel old or look old.” She pointed out that they did not want to affect this look because Russ & Daughters actually is old. It is the real deal.
Instead, in designing, they decided to make choices “to speak to that hamishness of Russ & Daughters.” Hamish, said Niki, is a “Yiddish word that means comfortable, familiar, homey, unpretentious.” In other words, it is not affected. The goal was to “feel history without it being written on the walls.”
“I have a three year old,” said Niki. “It’s funny now that I’m a parent. Before I had kids I thought I would never give any indication that this might be what I want them to do. I still honestly believe that, but I can also understand now when I look at my daughter, ‘Wouldn’t that be great if she kept it going?’”
Niki said with a laugh that the question people ask her the most is, “Don’t you get tired of the food?” She says absolutely not. “I don’t get tired of the food. I genuinely cannot get sick of it. There’s something so primal about the food that even though I’m surrounded by it every single day.”
My grandmother Joy, the Catholic woman who married Ethel’s Jewish son, Howard, takes pride in telling how in 1970’s New Jersey, she brought Russ & Daughters bagels and lox to serve to the Catholic priests after my mother’s first communion.
I recently went to Russ & Daughters Café with both of my grandparents. Howard ordered a bagel with cream cheese, onions, tomato, capers and kippered salmon, which he pointed out he hadn’t eaten since his mother, Ethel, was alive. I had “The Classic,” a bialy with Gaspe Nova smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, onions and tomato, and Joy had “The Shtetl,” a bialy with smoked sable, cream cheese, capers, onions and tomato. It was exactly what each of us wanted to eat.
The café has a clean, modern look, but is decorated with old reminders of the history of Russ & Daughters, successfully giving it its hamish quality. A big aluminum sign from the original shop from when they were expanding in the 20’s hangs on one wall. And on another, there are shelves with jars of pickles and candy and boxes of matzos, all topped with the glass signs from the old shop. The bathroom is wallpapered with the “take a number” ticket stubs, and the entire café feels exactly like the Russ & Daughters shop.
Today, when I walk around the Lower East Side, I find it hard to believe that it was once filled with pushcarts and mothers hanging out their laundry to dry.
Even though it is hot outside, there are no boys in newsboy caps playing marbles in the street. Instead, when I walk down Orchard Street, I pass ten or so twenty-five-year-olds in leather jackets and artificially distressed denim, designer sunglasses and SPF face moisturizer, creating a sun kissed glow. Around the corner from the New Museum of trendy and contemporary art is a Rag and Bone boutique. And across the street is the Whole Foods flagship.
There are no cobblestones; rather, the pavement has been poured fairly recently. I wait at a high-tech new stoplight as taxis drive by in lieu of pushcarts, and if I were to be charged six dollars for a coffee I would not be surprised.
The Lower East Side that I know is strikingly different from the one my great grandmother Ethel knew. But then I pass Russ & Daughters, and get a peek into her Lower East Side. So why has Russ & Daughters held its ground in this quickly changing neighborhood?
“People cry all the time in the cafe, in the store,” said Niki. But most importantly, sometimes people come in and say, “Thank you for just being here.”
When I look around at a family brunch, everyone is simultaneously talking to each other and engrossed in the food. My grandfather piles thin slices of red onion onto a cream cheese and lox clad bagel, while telling my brother that he should really try some whitefish salad on his plain bagel. My mother and grandmother have the same routine of splitting their bagels so that one half gets cream cheese and smoked salmon and the other half gets whitefish salad, sable and sliced tomato. My dad will have half a pumpernickel bagel and half a sesame one, both with scallion cream cheese and Gaspe Nova, and in the middle of the table, there is a big bowl of fruit salad that everybody will eat once the bagels are done. Perhaps there is some babka if it’s somebody’s birthday. I try to eat a little bit of everything, so as not to miss out on a single, delicious bite, but nothing will ever be quite as perfect as a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon.