It’s refreshing to remember that some of America’s oldest institutions embrace change—make room for women and racial and ethnic diversity—more willingly and with more alacrity than, say, the modern G.O.P., or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. It’s even more refreshing when those institutions happen also to sell delicious pickled herring in cream sauce.
That’s why it was a pleasure this week to watch a preview of The Sturgeon Queens. An independent film from director Julie Cohen, The Sturgeon Queens is about Russ & Daughters, the smoked fish and appetizing emporium that this year celebrates its one hundredth year in business on New York City’s Lower East Side.
Russ & Daughters sells smoked fish, cream cheese, bagels, rugelach and other traditionally Jewish foods. Its founder, Joel Russ, fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the United States in 1907, selling schmaltz herring—the cheap, fatty, plentiful fish that could be easily preserved in salt-brine—from a pushcart. He opened his shop in 1914 and his daughters Hattie, Ida and Anne began working the counter as pre-teens. Russ kept his store open twelve hours a day, seven days a week. As Hattie, who will turn 101 next month, remembers in the film, he also kept prices low: “[They] were ridiculous: eight cents a quarter [pound] for lox, and salmons three for fifty [cents]. Herrings, three for ten.”
In the 1930s, after his daughters had married, Russ made a startling move: he made them partners in the business and renamed his store “Russ & Daughters,” a practice unheard of at the time.
Niki Russ Federman, 36, the fourth-generation Russ who now co-owns the business with her cousin, Josh Russ Tupper, told me by phone that according to family lore, when Russ made the change, “people were shocked; they had never seen a business that said ‘and Daughters,’ and were sure it was the way to take a reputable business down the drain.” As far as the family knows—they are still researching it—it was the first business in the nation to include “and Daughters” in its name.
Incorporating women into his business was not a choice that Russ—described in The Sturgeon Queens by his 92-year-old daughter Anne as “a tyrant”—made because of any ahead-of-his-day commitment to gender equality.
“I would love to think of [my great-grandfather] as a pioneering feminist,” said Federman. “But really, it was that he had no sons and it was very catchy to say ‘and daughters.’” It didn’t hurt, she added, that “the daughters were very cute and he realized there was an appeal in that.”
“They could never believe it was girls,” remembers Hattie of her former customers in The Sturgeon Queens. “Customers would stand from all parts—Philadelphia and Connecticut—and they would watch the way we carried on with our fishes!”
Necessity is not just the mother of invention, it is also, sometimes, the cattle-prod of progress: economic conditions that nudged women into workplaces and strategic concerns that impelled Lincoln to free the slaves didn’t make professional opportunity for women or emancipation for African-Americans any less real. And the fact that a man went into business with his female offspring only because he got stuck with three of them, and no male heirs, didn’t make the economic or symbolic reality of those daughters’ involvement stand out any less.
“Everything else was ‘Shmuel & Sons,’” says Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in The Sturgeon Queens, recalling how struck she was by the store’s name as a girl. “Even before I heard the word ‘feminist,’ it made me happy to see that this was an enterprise where the daughters counted just like sons counted. That was most uncommon in those days.”
Ownership of the store has remained split between men and women, transferring after Joel’s death to two of the three daughters and their husbands, then, in the 1970s, to Anne’s lawyer son, Mark Russ Federman, and then, in the early years of the 21st century, to Mark’s nephew, Josh, a chemical engineer, and daughter Niki, who worked in international development.
Striking a balance between adherence to distinct, century-old tradition and expanding, diversifying and revising past practices is something that plays on Niki’s mind, she said. “It’s an incredibly compelling challenge to think about how change and continuity can coexist in a business and in our culture. It’s not always so easy.”
When Niki Federman’s father was running the store in the late 1970s, a bleak economic period in New York City, he turned for help to two of his employees, cousins from the Dominican Republic, José Reyes and Herman Vargas. They were doing prep work at the back of the store, peeling punishing piles of onions. They had a feel for food, and Mark needed people to work at the front of the store.
“Just like I don’t think my great-great-grandfather was being a feminist in the 1930s, I don’t think my father was acting out of progressive [drive] or trying to be an all-inclusive businessman when he decided that Herman and José should be the first Latino smoked-fish-slicers in New York,” Nike told me. “It was out of the need of a moment. And it did open up the culture [of the store]!”
When Vargas first took up the knife, Mark Federman recalls in the film, some customers walked out, and Vargas himself remembers asking him, “Are you crazy?” “It was all about Jewish customers in Jewish stores buying Jewish food from Jewish employees,” Mark explains later. “So to suddenly have Dominicans waiting on them, slicing lox, was, to some, off-putting.”
But Vargas and Reyes were great lox slicers, and they had ears for Yiddish. Soon, the customers were calling Vargas “boychik” and the journalist Calvin Trillin, who had often written about Russ & Daughters for his New Yorker column, created a character, “Herman, the artistic slicer,” in his novel Tepper Isn’t Going Out: “They say they can read the Times through one of Herman’s slices,” Trillin wrote.
More than thirty years after they started, both men still work at Russ & Daughters, Vargas as the general manager, Reyes as one of the store’s best-recognized slicers.
The Sturgeon Queens—a movie that kvells so intensely about Russ & Daughters that it might be mistaken for an advertisement, but was in fact made independently of the business—includes interviews with customers, many of them elderly Jews, some of whom have been shopping there since the late 1920s.1
Over ten decades, the store has drawn a more diverse fan base—one that includes, for example, my 85-year-old father-in-law, who arrived on a cargo ship from Mumbai in 1961 and has been a customer for 35 years, and my sister-in-law, a Catholic Texan who’s shopped there for fifteen. That’s a good thing, since there aren’t many of those old Jews left anymore, not to work the counters and not to buy the food. The Lower East Side is, these days, home to well-funded hipsters and bankers new to New York; people who patronize sleek clubs, pricey boutiques, and restaurants specializing in the kind of lo-fi pickled-brined-fermented delicacies that Russ & Daughters has been serving for a hundred years. (Russ & Daughters will open a restaurant of its own later this year).
That the business has survived long enough to capitalize on the Michael Pollan-by-way-of-Brooklyn fetishization of the kinds of haimishe foods our grandparents ate probably comes down to a combination of luck, survival instinct, and logical response to altered circumstances. In this, it makes the story of Russ & Daughters not unlike one of the better versions of the story of modern America: in the midst of social shifts, urban decay and then urban renewal, racial and ethnic mixing and economic anxiety, it responded not by setting its feet, but by adjusting its ways.
And the fish is good too.
The Sturgeon Queens is screening at film festivals around the country throughout the spring. It will air on PBS in the fall.
Rebecca Traister is a senior editor at The New Republic.