The House that Herring Built - The Buffalo News
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The House that Herring Built

For a herring seller and former attorney, Mark Russ Federman isn’t a bad writer.

And now the retired operator of the venerated “Russ & Daughters” deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan will visit the Jewish Community Center Book & Arts Fair on Sunday for some stories and some schmoozing.

Like the famous Russ & Daughters smoked salmon, which tantalizes the taste buds on multiple levels, Federman’s book is many things: a family biography, a business history, a joke book and a cookbook. And the mouthwatering photos – of cheese blintzes, potato latkes, beet, apple and herring salad, eight types of smoked fish and, of course, plenty of preparations that involve herring – aren’t too bad, either.

Federman, 68, the son of one of the three famous “Daughters” in the shop’s name, ran Russ & Daughters between 1978 and 2009, when he turned the business over to his own daughter and a nephew. On a recent rainy weekday, he called from the “little office in the back of Russ & Daughters” during a lull in business, when only 10 customers were being served.

“I come in when I want to, which is a great thing to be able to do, and then I eat my way down the counter,” said the man who makes no secret of the fact that he adored everything about operating the shop, from negotiating the purchases of smoked fish to satisfying the demanding customers.

But before taking his place behind the counter of the shop established by his grandfather, he went to law school after earning a degree at Alfred University in Allegany County. During his time at Alfred, he said, “I never went to Buffalo. I dated some Buffalo girls, but I never went to Buffalo to visit. Never went to Niagara Falls.”

After his education, he practiced law, working as both a defense attorney and prosecutor. Then, in 1978, with his parents ready to retire, Federman decided he would run the store part time and practice law part ime. Dream on.

“The first day I took up my place behind the counter was the last day I practiced law,” he writes. “Little did I know that my career as a litigator would not prepare me for the battles of retail: for the endless negotiations with the suppliers, the employees and the customers. So I began earning my Ph.D. (professional herring degree).”

The name of the store “Russ & Daughters” always set the shop apart. In the new film, “The Sturgeon Queens,” about Russ & Daughters, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “Even before I heard the word ‘feminist,’ it made me happy to see that this was an enterprise where the daughters counted.”

The traditional foods offered by Russ & Daughters – smoked fish including salmon, whitefish, sturgeon and trout, caviar, chopped liver and herring, a salad that mixes beets, apple and herring, bagels and their cousins, the bialys – have run through cycles of popularity. With the current emphasis on local sourcing, quality ingredients and artisanal preparations, these simple foods are sought-after again.

“I say in the book that the humble herring has become haute cuisine, and the bagel and lox has gone from Delancey Street to Main Street,” Federman said. “Food that’s presented directly gets to be more appreciated, particularly in this age of stuff that seems to be overly gussied up and prepared.”

But beyond the food, shopping at Russ & Daughters has always been an experience, both for the seller and for the shopper. Federman recounts a hilarious encounter with one longtime customer who rejects the first herring he presents to her, then demands that he hand-fillet her preferred herring himself on the spot.

The customers of the Russ “appetizing” store – “where mouthwatering (‘appetizing’) food was sold,” he writes – “are just about the toughest customers that New York can produce, and New York produces the toughest customers anyplace.”

And yet, with a store history dating back to Grandpa Russ’ first pushcart sales in 1907 and a personal demand for excellence that infuses every transaction, “You work with a degree of obsessiveness, because your name is on the door, over the door in neon, it’s on the labels, the containers, and the name Russ goes out with every piece of fish that goes out of here,” said Federman.

He always enjoyed the demanding customers, Federman said.

“I love it. And the sad thing is that the old-time customer is really an endangered species. I miss that. These are the customers who viewed shopping for food as a cross between making love and an act of war. They’re going to spend their money in your store; you are going to earn it. They were doing you a favor, and they let you know it, and each sale was like you were trying to seduce them, and they were beating you up, and you wanted their loyalty. You had to deal with them many, many times over many years to get their loyalty, but once you did, it was extraordinary, and it lasted for generations, because they would tell their children and grandchildren, ‘If you want to buy a piece of fish or a herring, this is where you shop.’ ”

Federman will speak about his book, “Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House that Herring Built,” at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 N. Forest Road, Getzville. The talk is part of the 47th Jewish Community Center Book and Arts Fair. His book will be sold by Talking Leaves, and he is expected to sign books after his presentation.


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