By Kim Choe
“Memory is not just about the smell and the taste of the food, but about the place and the process.”
RECIPE: POTATO LATKES
As the third generation owner of one of New York’s most famous Jewish food stores, Mark Russ Federman knows a thing or two about tradition.
Russ & Daughters has been firmly ensconced on the Lower East Side since 1914, when Polish immigrant Joel Russ opened a store selling salt-cured salmon and herring to the area’s Jewish community.
The Russ & Daughters name, which added a much-lauded cafe to its stable last year, is a neighborhood anchor, a reminder of a time when buying food was a social, personalized experience.
“Whole cultures were being kept in these mom and pop food shops,” Mark said recently at a Jewish food history event at the Museum of the City of New York.
The family-run stores made it their business to “know about your daughter’s graduation and your husband’s prostate operation,” all while slicing your salmon so thinly “you could read the New York Times through it”.
That experience became more rare as the Jewish community dispersed from the Lower East Side and people began favoring the convenience of large, self-service supermarkets. One by one, small food businesses began disappearing from the area, replaced by shiny boutiques, slick restaurants and towering apartment buildings.
Russ & Daughters never wavered though, steadfastly continuing to hand-slice its salmon and serve fresh bagels lathered with cream cheese to a steady stream of adoring customers.
Mark is less involved with the business these days, having handed it over to a fourth generation of Russ children: his daughter, Niki Russ Federman, and nephew, Josh Russ Tupper.
When Mark learned of their plans to open a new cafe – the first expansion of the business beyond its flagship store in 100 years – he feared it would be too young, trendy, chic and hip. None of those words sat particularly well with his desire to preserve tradition.
Luckily, Niki and Josh are just as committed to Jewish soul food, seeing the cafe as an extension of the business rather than a reinvention – a place that reinforces the belief that Russ & Daughters’ food should be shared.
New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells gave the cafe two stars out of four (considered “very good” by the Times) when it opened in July 2014, saying Niki and Josh had “added to, elaborated on and deviated from the store in ways that make the cafe a three-dimensional restaurant, not just a theme-park homage designed to cash in on the original’s popularity”.
On the menu, Jewish favourites like knishes (filled pastries) and latkes (potato pancakes) sit alongside American staples like eggs Benedict, the latter served on challah (a soft, white braided bread) for good measure.
“Tradition is both an anchor to your roots and something that will weigh you down,” Mark acknowledges.
He now recognizes the Russ & Daughters cafe as a way to avoid the latter, allowing the business to adapt to customers’ changing tastes while helping them understand why the original store, just around the corner, occupies such an important place in New York history.
RECIPE: RUSS & DAUGHTERS’ POTATO LATKES
This recipe comes from Mark Russ Federman’s book, ‘Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built’. You can support Kitchen Chapters by purchasing the book through Amazon or Book Depository.