Mark Russ Federman, the grandson of Russ & Daughters founder Joel Russ, ceded his celebrated lox and herring business to his daughter and nephew in 2009. Soon after, he started spinning tales in a book, capturing the 100-year history of his family on the Lower East Side. Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built will be released by Random House on March 5th. This morning he took some time to schmooze over the telephone.
You got some great blurbs for your book, Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, Oliver Sacks -- and Calvin Trillin writing the foreward.
The book has a lot of buzz, much to my surprise, from all the people I've waited on all these years. I didn't sleep last night because I got a review in the New York Times. Oh, my God, I can't get my head around it. Why did I do this?
I bet you're going to be all over the place promoting it.
When I used to be behind the counter I knew everybody's names, their kids' names, their pets, their dates of birth, but as soon as I retired I don't remember anything anymore. I'm having a book launch party next week and there are going to be people there I've known all my life and I'm not going to be able to remember any of their names. If I was good at anything but slicing fish and schmoozing, it was remembering names. It's an oncoming disaster.
So why did you do it?
For a number of reasons. I was no longer going to be Mr. Russ, slicing, dicing, wiping knives, taking orders, giving orders, presiding over my little realm on the Lower East Side. My daughter Niki and nephew Josh were going to be the new Mr. Russ. There was a time when my grandpa Russ and his three daughters and their three husbands all worked in the store together. I asked my mother how that worked out. 'We were at each other's throats,' she said. So I taught Niki and Josh the difference between a good piece of fish and a bad piece of fish and got out of the way. I thought: I'll write a book. We had plenty of writers coming into the store. They looked relaxed and I said, how hard can this be? What the hell? Only to find out writing is harder than retail. It's an awful struggle. I made the mistake of getting an agent and a publisher who put some money in front of me and gave me deadlines. They're not giving you money without expecting something in return. The difficulty of getting words on paper, crafting a sentence and turning it into a paragraph and then a story....Besides that, it's sort of lonely. I'm from a life that's full of people all the time. But I'm a man who likes challenges. The mission became to finish it so the family -- Russes dead and alive -- are proud of it.
You must have been relieved when you finished it.
I had no idea how good it was. By the hundredth time you're looking at it you're nauseated by it. What an embarrassment. I can't show this to anybody. A week or so ago I was down in Florida visiting my mother, who's 92, and my aunt Hattie, who's almost 100 [the middle Russ daughter, Ida, died at 86], and Random House was kind enough to FedEx them copies of the book. I know what I'm going to hear from them: 'What did you have to tell them that for?' But I see them reading it with their magnifying glasses and they're kvelling. It made them proud of the life they had lived. They didn't do it by choice, they were conscripted. Grandpa Russ had no sons. They worked in awful, smelly conditions during the Depression and when I would talk to them about the old days they never called them the 'good old days.' Now Russ & Daughters is celebrated.
You took over the store in 1978 when the Lower East Side was not a nice place to be.
It was a dangerous time to have a business and got even worse in the '80s and early '90s. I'd gotten an English literature degree and gone to law school and left a law practice to work in the store. My first day this fancy lady from the Upper East Side comes in. She's used to my mother waiting on her and she wanted the sturgeon the way my mother did it. She started giving me the most difficult time. I was about to tell her, 'I don't need to do this. I'm a lawyer.' I was about to deliver an oral argument and I looked up at her -- a big mistake when I'm holding a knife -- and I cut myself really badly. I had to slink out and get my hand stitched up. It was a clear message to me on my first day. They don't care if you're a lawyer. They want their fish done their way.
Being a trial lawyer didn't help you win arguments with customers?
Whatever education I had was absolutely of no value in the store. Arguing in court is quite different from some little old lady beating you up over the piece of fish you're giving her. It was a war every day getting fish from the smokers, nasty, dirty, cursing people. My real education was what I got in the store and from the suppliers. It's probably not until now that I can reflect on this. Writing the book gave me the opportunity to reflect instead of react.
What's a good customer versus a bad customer?
We have very few bad customers. Some who haven't come in before have a chip on their shoulder, think they can take it out on the counterman. With Grandpa Russ, if a lady looked at him wrong he'd say, 'Lady, do me a favor. Lose my address.' The three Russ daughters were better at charming people.
I read that your father, Mark Federman, was called the Sheik of Brooklyn, he was so handsome.
Maybe he was called that once -- by his mother. She was a customer in the store, as wide as she was tall, a real tank. She marched into the store and sees these three pretty Russ girls behind the counter. 'Which one isn't married?' she said. 'My son is the sheik of Brooklyn.' My mother said, 'I'd like to meet the sheik of Brooklyn.' They met and fell in love and got married. All three daughters married for love, but Grandpa Russ had to make sure first they were good working stock.
You wrote that your grandfather called your grandmother 'Zug,' which means 'Hey, you' in Yiddish.
And she called him 'Russ,' his last name. There was never any display of affection that I could tell in the 50 years they were married. It was an arranged marriage. But when she died two years before him he was lost.
What do you remember about your grandfather?
I was 16 or 17 when he died. He was not a warm, fuzzy guy. He was tough, typical Eastern European, uneducated, self-taught, no time and no patience. He was going to build a business and make it better. If you asked him where he came from he said the Austro-Hungarian empire. But he came from a shtetl in Poland, basically poor Jews.
He must have been trying to forget his past.
He left that past at Ellis Island.
When the whole family worked in the fish business all day I wonder if everybody smelled like fish.
We all smelled normal to each other. It turns out it's not so bad. I like to say now, 'Our business is less fishy than most.' We have an honest business. It's hard work but it feels good. At the end of the day we make people happy. How many professions does that happen in? There's a generation behind me that thinks the same way. My daughter and nephew are educated and they decided on their own to come in and do this.
I read that the original title of your book was going to be 'From Pushcart to Posh.'
The title was always going to be "The House that Herring Built." I also loved the title "A Business Less Fishy," but everyone thought that stunk.