Calvin Trillin on Russ & Daughters
I recently attended the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation's Much Ado About Noshing event at the Astor Center featuring New Yorker writer Calvin "Bud" Trillin and two of the four generations of family members that have continuously owned and operated Russ & Daughters, the world-famous Lower East Side appetizer, for more than 100 years.
The third generation was represented by Mark Russ Federman, a "reformed" lawyer who left law to run R & D (which also stands for "Herring Research and Development"). Mark is writing the hotly anticipated history of Russ & Daughters and his family, which bears the working title The House That Herring Built. Before completing his memoir, Mark recently passed the Russ & Daughters torch to his nephew Josh Russ Tupper and his daughter Niki Russ Federman, who, thankfully, recently gave birth to an heiress to the Sturgeon Queens' royal family: a fifth generation Russ daughter. Speaking of historic preservation, Niki and Josh, like Mark before them, gave up their graduate studies and professional careers to preserve a family business devoted to preserving fish. Their silky smoked "lox" on a bagel with shmear is a historic Lower East Side luxury to die for.
I support my own smoked fish addiction (Russ & Daughters' smoked sturgeon, my favorite, is even more expensive than the lox) by practicing law. Mark's natural contempt for lawyers was increased tenfold when I represented Niki and Josh against Mark when they assumed legal ownership. After briefly being banned from the store, all was forgiven once I produced evidence that three generations of my family have been paying retail for sturgeon for 50 years.
Known as a political writer, poet, and satirist, Calvin Trillin has also often written about his relationship with food while living in Greenwich Village with his wife Alice for 40 years and raising two daughters. If Woody Allen's neurotic, existential, self-deprecating humor had focused on food instead of love and death, he'd have been named Calvin Trillin. By way of example, Trillin ascribes to famous Russ & Daughters customer Zero Mostel the revelation that Jewish-Romanian cooking, particularly its emphasis on schmaltz (chicken fat), has been responsible for the deaths of more Jews than Hitler. (Photo Wikimedia/Huangavin)
Trillin has been the inspiration for my humble attempts at being a food writer. His writing recounts his loving paternal efforts to share his passion for the food he discovered in his own beloved Lower East Side, Little Italy, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village with his daughters as they were growing up, and his wife's equally loving tolerance of his food obsession.
For me, Trillin's books are a mirror of my own life living in Greenwich Village with my beautiful and infinitely patient wife and infinitely picky-eater daughter. I, too, share Trillin's legendary violent distrust of Chinese menu translations, as he covets the dishes served to the Chinese customers at the next table which do not appear on the English menu while Alice unsuccessfully tries to soothe his paranoia. I must confess to lying to the Chinese legal translator in my law office, whom I've convinced that the translation of the Szechuan menu I've given her is critical to winning a firm client's litigation.
Trillin started the lecture by describing the typical Russ & Daughters customer: a sweet, elderly, Jewish lady who comes in once a week looking for a "nice" whitefish. "One whitefish coming up," says the affable counterman, most likely Herman Vargas, a 30-year veteran slicer and general manager of Russ & Daughters who speaks more Yiddish than Spanish, and who has been immortalized in Trillin's books. "I said a 'nice' whitefish," shoots back the lady.
I told Mark that my own father would insist that his sturgeon be sliced from the superior piece of fish hidden in the proverbial "vault" and reserved for only the best regular customers. Niki and Josh have confirmed to me the existence of the vault, but will not share the combination even though I'm supposedly their "trusted" lawyer.
One of my favorite Trillin stories involved his obsessive-compulsive quest to find the perfect Italian sausage-and-pepper hero among the seemingly infinite number of sausage stands at the Feast of San Gennaro to the embarrassment of his daughters, a feeling my own daughter knows quite well, as I've done the same at countless braciole stands at the Feast. Trillin has even attempted to lure his now grown daughter to move back to New York from San Francisco by promising to locate the gnarled, dark pumpernickel bagel she cherished as a little girl from the now defunct bakery that used to be next door to Russ & Daughters.
With Trillin and the Russ family sharing their intimate stories with the audience, unlimited Gaspe and Scottish smoked salmon sliced by the inimitable Mr. Vargas, modern hors d'oeuvres like wasabi-flavored flying fish roe atop blinis and crème fraîche, and the fantastic chocolate babka for dessert, Much Ado About Noshing was actually much ado about something very precious to the history and culture of New York City.