NEW YORK — It’s three o’clock in the afternoon on a Thursday, and Russ and Daughters, the legendary smoked fish shop on New York City’s Lower East Side, is buzzing. Standing toward the front door, a few steps back from the throb of the crowd, is Julie Cohen, a Brooklyn-based documentarian, trying to decide what her favorite dish is.
“It’s a clear tie for first,” Cohen tells me, as she periodically eyes the racks of fish behind the crystal clear glass deli cases. “The whitefish and baked salmon salad — it’s a whole new level of whitefishery — and the pickled herring. I am a big fan of the herring.”
Cohen’s newest project “The Sturgeon Queens” not only documents the story behind this food, but the store itself. Though Katz’s — where the meats are piled high and the celebrity photos are aplenty — has long been the go-to Jewish food establishment for New York City tourists, head a few blocks down the road and you’ll find a spot with a bit more character.
Cohen first came across Russ in 2007, while on the hunt for a Jewish-owned food shop in the Lower East Side to include in her documentary, “The Jews of New York.” Cohen had been coming to the City since she was a little girl — both her parents were born in Brooklyn — but she had never heard of Russ and Daughters. Thankfully, a Google search changed all of that.
“I Googled Lower East Side and babka,” she says over the rustle of customers buying fish. “I was thinking, Wouldn’t it be great if there was an old babka place? What came up was a New York Times story… In that story, there was [a mention of] Russ and Daughters.”
Today, Cohen has agreed to walk me through a few of her favorite Russ and Daughters dishes, and to get a taste test of the store’s famous smoked salmon. After talking about the herring and the whitefish salad, we make our way toward the back counter. There, Cohen and I are greeted by Herman Vargas, who began working at Russ and Daughters in 1980, shortly after he emigrated from the Dominican Republic.
“What I am going to do for you is give you a taste of every salmon that we have,” he tells us. “In the process you’re going to find that you’re probably going to like them all.”
He is not lying.
After handing us small forks and a set of serving cups, we are treated to our first salmon, the Norwegian, a fish that runs between two-and-a-half and three pounds, and has a smoky, fruity flavor.
“Delicious!” says Cohen.
After the Norwegian, we move onto the Irish Salmon — with a silky, tender flesh — and then onto the Gaspé, one of the most popular items in the store.
“The name derived from the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada,” Vargas says. “This particular salmon is perhaps one of the most delicate. The people who are doing this one, they are making it smokier than usual.”
The Gaspé ends up being Cohen’s favorite, but the Scottish (with its smoky flavor and fattier flesh), and the Gravlox (a Swedish-style salmon that’s been cured, with smoke, dills, sugar, and pepper) also receives high remarks.
Though all of the food is delicious, it was the family story that inspired Cohen to document the store in the first place. Specifically, the “daughters” of Russ and Daughters — three of them to be exact: Hattie, Anne, and Ida.
When Cohen spotted Hattie’s wedding photo on the shop’s website, she immediately saw an opportunity and dialed Mark Russ Federman, who was running the store at the time.
“I said ‘Excuse my rudeness, but are any of your mothers or aunts still living?’ And he said ‘My mom and my aunt live down in Florida. They’re hilarious, super sharp, and nobody has ever done a sit-down on-camera interview with them.’ At the time, they were 95 and 87 [years old],” says Cohen.
Calling them super sharp may have been an understatement. When Cohen traveled south to interview Hattie and Ann in 2007 (Ida died in 2001 at age 86), she found two funny women trading stories about their family and one of the most legendary food shops in the city.
Though the footage she gathered was eventually used for “The Jews of New York,” after the film was released, Cohen realized there was enough information to spin the Russ and Daughters story into its own project. Thus “The Sturgeon Queens” was born.
If Hattie and Anne are the film’s backbone, the customers are its soul. In fact, Cohen convinced a dozen patrons who had been coming to Russ and Daughters for decades to do the film’s narration — not easy for a group of voiceover amateurs (then again, Cohen did entice them with free food from the store). The film shows the customers doing the narration, Seder-style, as they sit around the table taking turns telling the story of Joel Russ, who opened the fish shop in 1914.
One hundred years ago, Russ and Daughters had no heat or A/C, and the workdays were long and hard. Though conditions are much more hospitable now, a few things haven’t changed: the great food and the sense of history.
Stepping into the store feels warm and comforting. The scent of salted fish and bagels floods the air, the clerks, in their white lab coats, slice salmon behind the counter, and the random assortment of trinkets and family pictures hang from the wall.
Hattie’s wedding photo is still posted up behind the counter as Cohen and I continue to gorge on food.
“It’s very nice salmon,” says Vargas, as he continues the taste test (we’ve now moved onto the New Zealand). “As you can see, it’s also very delicate. But the smoke is with a manuka wood. [This is for] people who like our smokier salmon but with a nice fruity flavor.”
“That’s distinctive!” Cohen says. “See I kind of feel as you continue to eat it gets better, so it’s an unfair comparison.”
“That’s why when someone comes and says ‘What’s the best salmon you have?’ We say they are all the best,” Vargas says. “It’s a personal palette, personal preference.”
Vargas asks for our top choices so he can make a sandwich. While I opt for a bagel with Gaspé, Cohen decides to go for her original order.
“I was just going to open up my whitefish salad and start eating it,” she says, regarding her favorite dish.
“What kind of bagel?” Vargas asks me.
“Everything” I reply.
“Scallion or plain [cream cheese]?”
“Try the veggie,” Cohen chimes in while eating. I trust the expert.
As Cohen continues to dig into her whitefish and salmon salad, I take a bite of my sandwich. It reminds me of something “The Sturgeon Queens” filmmaker said earlier in the hour: that the food at Russ and Daughters has a potato chip-like quality to it, where you can eat it indefinitely without realizing how much you’re eating. That makes choosing favorites even harder, but Cohen seems to have it down to a science — or at least to the dish she’s eating now.
“As much as I like the lox,” she says, “this is even better.”
“The Sturgeon Queens” will be playing at Jewish film festivals across the country throughout 2014. For more information, head here.