Herring, pastrami and a side of nostalgia

Russ and Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built and Katz’s: Autobiography of a Delicatessen.

Russ and Daughters 370  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Russ and Daughters 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If there’s one thing American Jews love more than food, it’s a heaping plate of nostalgia. Luckily, two recently published books on historic Lower East Side eateries are offering up extra- large portions of both.
Russ and Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built and Katz’s: Autobiography of a Delicatessen were published a few months apart, about two eating establishments on the Lower East Side that both opened around the turn of the 20th century, less than 100 meters away from each other on East Houston Street, and are still open today.
But when it comes to the books, that’s where the similarities end.
Mark Russ Federman, grandson of Russ and Daughters founder Joel Russ, has penned a book delving into the story of his family’s establishment, in the context of his ancestors’ history and the transformation of the Lower East Side over the past century.
From its opening in 1914 through its struggles to remain open and its return to vogue in the 21st century, Russ and Daughters has a long and colorful history. Federman sets up the story arc of the shop, including his family history, the transformation of the Lower East Side over the years, and even the store’s shift from a mom-and-pop store to a modern, 21st-century operation.
“We now get both the subway set and the jet set,” Federman writes in the book’s introduction. “The once humble herring is now haute cuisine.
And who doesn’t like bagels and lox? While we once did business across the counter, we now sell our products across cyberspace. Our neighborhood has gone from squalid ghetto to tenement chic. And the hardworking Russ family has changed, too. We are now hardworking and have advanced university degrees.”
Though the book is structured somewhat chronologically, Federman jumps back and forth due to the divisions of the chapters, with sections on the family, the employees, the customers and the products.
Though the first chapter, “Our History, Sliced Thin,” gives an overview of the store’s 100 years in operation, more details and anecdotes are related in “The Neighborhood: From Pushcart to Push”; “The Customers: I’ll Have a Quarter Pound of Lox, One Filleted Herring, and Your Kishkes” and others. Not unsurprisingly, given the somewhat unstructured nature of the book, Federman repeats some of the anecdotes more than once, much the same way your grandfather might repeat the stories he tells you about days gone by.
There are also recipes sprinkled throughout for appetizing store classics, including cheese blintzes; beet, apple and herring salad; egg creams; and smoked salmon tartare. There’s an eight-page color spread of beautiful food photographs, but the black-and-white snapshots sprinkled throughout are just as compelling; from pushcarts on Houston Street to old family snapshots, the store’s first facade, employees hard at work and, of course, the famous faces who have visited throughout the years, from Zero Mostel to Martha Stewart.
The book is obviously very personal to Federman, and at times it is more like the story of his research and writing of the store’s history than the history itself – including an intriguing tale of his visit to the Strzyzover Rebbe in Borough Park – but he has an engaging voice that makes it work.
BY CONTRAST, Jake Dell, grandson of Martin Dell, who bought Katz’s Deli in 1988, has compiled a largely photographic record of the store and its every nook and cranny. In its almost 400 pages, there are 645 color photographs of the eatery. While many of the images are visually stunning, and one certainly feels he has examined the restaurant up close and personally after perusing the photos, the book has many deficits.
Firstly, many of the images are simply overkill; I don’t have any need to see the line of urinals in the bathroom, nor multiple upclose images of the cup-washing machine, or a four-photo progression of one guy eating his bowl of matza ball soup. The pictures and names of every single employee felt more like a high-school yearbook than a published volume.
In addition, Katz’s was opened in 1888, and certainly has a colorful and remarkable history.
However, every single photo in the book was taken in 2013, with no real glimpses of the deli’s 125-year past. The closest it comes is photographs of all the images hung on the walls by famous visitors since 1988, including then-president Bill Clinton, ex-Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, film stars Johnny Depp and Patrick Swayze, thenvice president Al Gore, the Wu- Tang Clan, and of course, the cast of When Harry Met Sally, who filmed the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene at a table in the deli. (The table is marked with a sign for movie buffs looking to recreate the film, should they dare.) One can’t help but feel this approach to the book is reflected by the relatively young ownership of Katz’s by the Dell family, who bought the deli 100 years after it first opened. Sure, the past 25 years of the deli have been interesting, but so, I imagine, was the first century.
Obviously, a picture is worth 1,000 words, but even the best pictures can do with some sentences accompanying them. Some images left me looking for more information, and therefore I turned to the Web: the sawdust-covered floor is a throwback to bars and eateries, which used it to soak up spills rather than clean the floor regularly. More than a dozen pictures of signs posted around the restaurant warn of a fine for any unreturned tickets. According to my research, the restaurant uses the tickets to track every single purchase via the cafeteria-style dining, since they are what enables food pick-up before paying.
The hundreds of photos are arresting and entertaining to flip though, but an “autobiography,” as the book calls itself, should be more than just a snapshot in time of a 125-year-old institution.
Regardless, the two books will leave nostalgia-hungry New Yorkers and expats, and history-loving food buffs, with plenty of food for thought.