The new documentary “The Sturgeon Queens” explores the history and legacy of Russ and Daughters, the Lower East Side’s famed purveyor of smoked fish which has been appetizing its way into our mouths and hearts for one-hundred years now. The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss spoke with writer and producer Julie Cohen about why she decided to tell this story, the shops unusual and proto-feminist name and how she got the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Mario Batali to get really personal about smoked salmon.
Elissa Strauss: Where did the idea for this film come from? Besides, of course, the desire to be in close proximity with perfectly cured, paper-thin smoked salmon.
Julie Cohen: Six years ago, New York PBS asked me to put together an hour about “The Jews of New York” to go along with another film they were airing. I decided to tell that story as six short profiles — different slices of New York Jewish life. I chose the Russes as one of those profiles and did a two-hour long interview with Anne and Hattie, the Russ Daughters. Because the segment was short, I knew there was A LOT of amazing material from Anne and Hattie that hadn’t been used. I also met Herman Vargas, a Dominican immigrant who’s worked at the store for 35 years. I knew he was a great part of the story but he didn’t fit in with my “Jews of New York” assignment. So I’ve always wanted to go back and tell the Russ story as its own film. With the store’s hundredth anniversary in 2014 I knew this was the year to do it.
You rounded up quite an all-star line-up of Russ and Daughters fans for this movie, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Calvin Trillin and Mario Batali. How did you get a Supreme Court Justice to wax poetic about her love of the institution and their not too oily, perfectly sweet Scottish salmon?
Really I think it was the stars’ love of the institution that made them agree to the interviews. These aren’t people who’ve just shopped at Russ & Daughters on occasion; they are SERIOUSLY devoted to the store. Justice Ginsburg knew the place as a child but of course she hasn’t lived in New York for decades. But she still orders a huge Russ and Daughters spread for her annual New Years Eve party. My secret weapon for booking the interviews was the smoked fish itself. I told each celebrity that I’d be bringing a supply of their favorite to include in our shot, and that the fish would be theirs to keep after the shoot. Of course these are all people who can afford their own lox or even caviar, but there’s just something thrilling about the idea of having someone bring you perfect smoked fish as a gift. Justice Ginsburg wrote me a really nice note after the shoot saying how much she and visiting family members had enjoyed the lox and herring I brought.
In many cultures, ours included, food is not just something we eat to survive, but a social, cultural and even historical expression. Indeed, the saying “you are what you eat,” means so much more than eating organic vegetables to Jews. Why do you think there is such a deeply ritualistic element to the food sold by Russ and Daughters?
I think the meaning of the Old World Jewish food rituals comes from that fact that this is one of the few pieces of our modern life that ties us back to our immigrant ancestors. I don’t wear the shmattes my great grandparents did, and I don’t speak much Yiddish. But when I eat a perfect bite of pickled herring, I feel tied in a small way back through the generations, in a way that makes me proud. In our interview, Anne and Hattie talked about the idea of “schepping nachas” — feeling a bone-deep pride — for their grandchildren. But I think the nachas actually flow both ways. When you think about it, our grandparents and their parents did something really courageous setting forth for a scary chaotic city (New York) in an unknown new world and they accomplished a huge amount for later generations in a very short time. I think there’s a lot to be proud of and it helps explain why people get teary talking about nova or pickled herring.
Until I watched your film I never noticed how unusual it was that this store was named Russ & Daughters; it was one of the first, if not possibly the first, business in the country to be titled as such. And of course this wasn’t just lip service. The daughters of the son-less founder Joel Russ eventually took over the store and kept it afloat during much of the 20th century. Tell me a little bit about how this happened and how his daughters managed to please their, and this is their term, “tyrant” father.
Well of course Joel Russ wasn’t exactly a feminist; he was just a practical guy. He had only daughters, and it turned out they were terrific assets behind the counter because they were hard-working and good with the customers and also because they were pretty and charming and that helped attract customers. Having them become partners wasn’t affirmative action for women fishmongers, it was just a question of promoting the best people for the job. And isn’t that exactly the way we’d like the world to work?
And in the process they also inspired Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right?
Yes. Because of her history as a women’s rights lawyer, I’d been hoping to ask her about the “daughters” angle but our interview time was very short (10 minutes) and I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance. But before I even had the chance to ask, she volunteered that seeing the name “Russ and Daughters” had had a huge positive impact on her from the very first time she saw it.
We have found ourselves in the middle of an old-world Jewish food renaissance, or, as the New York Times recently put it, “Everything new, is old again.” Having spent so much time looking back at the history of this store and the shtetl food it sells, how do you feel about the fact that it is suddenly fashionable?
I’m really, really glad about the herring revival, knish-essance or whatever you want to call it. If old style Jewish food weren’t cool right now, Russ and Daughters probably wouldn’t have been able to get a top notch modern chef like John Stevenson for their new cafe. I love amazing food — I actually cook a lot myself and even ran my own little catering business when I was in high school. The idea that I now have the opportunity to have childhood Jewish favorites like borscht, pickled herring and halvah re-imagined for the 21st century makes me happier than I can describe.
For a schedule of screenings visit http://thesturgeonqueens.com/
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Daughters of Russ and Daughters