NYC Institutions with Family History (Theirs & Mine)
“I would take the trolley car over the Brooklyn Bridge, get off at Essex Street and visit my grandmother on Eldridge Street. She would put two pennies in a brown paper bag with a string on it, and drop it out of her window to me from the 3rd floor. I’d take the bag and walk down the block to get a kasha knish.”
I love hearing stories told by my grandmother of her childhood in Brooklyn and on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The streets during those years have certainly transformed since then, with the growth of trendy neighborhoods, apartment buildings, stylish stores, restaurants and bars. But thankfully a few of the original food shops remain, including two on East Houston Street – Russ & Daughters Appetizers and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery. The latter is where my grandmother’s two pennies were always well spent.
What’s a knish, you ask? A traditional side dish or appetizer on Jewish tables, these hefty round pastries are made with a thin layer of dough encasing a savory filling. While there may be a larger menu these days, offering knishes made with assorted vegetables or cheese, just stick to the classics – potato or kasha (buckwheat groats), the two original items at Yonah Schimmel’s push cart in 1910. (As for why it’s written as Shimmel out front without the c – they told me it was a mistake and chose to just leave it. !?) You can sit in the shop next to the dumbwaiter that sends the knishes up from the bakery, and surround yourself with stacks of cardboard boxes and old articles on the wall recounting the place’s history (they celebrated their centennial last year). Or if you get a few knishes to go, just be warned: you may feel like someone dropped a dumbbell or two into your bag. This is not a light snack, rather a hearty Eastern European food that Jewish immigrants brought from Russia. My dad’s advice: wash it down with a Dr. Brown’s cream soda. Then take a nap.
As kids, my sister and I spent New Year’s Eve at my grandparents’ house, wearing silly hats and enjoying every excuse to make noise and throw streamers around in an otherwise off-limits setting. This year, I may not have donned those colorful paper hats (even though I bet they are still in my grandparents’ attic), but I was there for a classic New Year’s Day brunch. What did we bring? The classics that my grandparents, parents and I have been enjoying for weekend breakfasts since as far back as I can remember. Growing up, my Sunday mornings meant the New York Times on the table (and the Newsday comics for me), bagels, cream cheese and lox. We looked forward to going to my grandparents’ house for more elaborate tables, with platters of smoked fish, whole whitefish, sable (“poor man’s sturgeon”) and herring. Sliced tomatoes, cucumber, onion and radish completed the scene.
So where did we go to get all this stuff in New York City? The same address my grandparents went to when they were little, just a few doors down from Yonah Schimmel’s. Russ & Daughters, but of course. An absolute mecca for all things smoked, kippered and caviared. You walk into this always bustling, bright appetizers shop, pass the tall barrels of pickles, take a number and step aside in the narrow space to let someone either in or out. Even if the wait is long, you’ll have enough to look at in the many tempting cases that it will go by fast, too fast. A whole case for cream cheese varieties and other spreads; another for salmon – be it cold-smoked, hot-smoked, cured (lox) or kippered (baked, my favorite !); herring (schmaltz fillets, roll mops, pickled herring with cream sauce and pickled onions, or even in curry sauce); and yet another case of salads and other appetizers like chopped liver, gefilte fish, blintzes and potato latkes. Not only is the quality unparalleled, but best of all, the team behind the counter is friendly and patient, willing to answer your 101 questions, and even give you a taste or two. (I doubt of the golden Osetra malossol caviar though.)
You didn’t think I was going to forget dessert, did you? There’s usually a babka or Hungarian loaf on our family table, of which my mother and I invariably pick off the top, the best part (think crumbs and chocolate). Russ & Daughters has those too. And an entire display of dried fruit and nuts as well. And seltzer bottles to whip up New York Egg Creams, should the craving hit (made with the one and only Fox’s u-bet chocolate syrup of course). They even have twists. Twists?
Never has anyone stepped foot in my grandparents’ house without leaving with a twist from the freezer – house rules. By twist, I mean chewy vanilla marshmallow dipped in dark chocolate. (A blue Joyva box comes to mind.) I could only smile when I saw them on display in front of the jelly rings (below left), but knew I didn’t need to buy any, as my grandparents’ freezer miraculously never runs out. And then there’s halvah, oooh halvah (or spelled halva and even halavah as seen below right). A beige colored confection, and dense, calorie bomb made of ground sesame seeds, this is another classic sweet on our holiday tables, especially Passover, when leavened goods are forbidden.
Incredibly distracted by the person slicing a huge block of halvah in the corner, I lost track of time – and my parents. My mother was in a conversation with a woman the age of her own mother, who goes to Russ & Daughters every day, and who was saying if only she got a penny for every time she heard people coming in and saying “my grandparents used to come here…” She also started to speak to me in Yiddish once she learned I live in Zürich. (Not that I understood, nor do people speak Yiddish here.)
My father, as usual, was busy kibitzing, this time with the young lady behind the counter. When I joined him, I was introduced to Niki – and you would have thought she and my dad had known each other for years. Extremely friendly, her warm smile naturally made you feel that way. She told me it was her great grandfather, Joel Russ, who started it all, back in 1914. But truth be told, it was his sister Hannah who emigrated to New York City first and sent for her little brother to help support the family. Good thing she did. And so, “from pushcart to posh” it went. That happens to be the working title of third generation Marc Russ Federman’s memoir to be. Fourth generation and simply beaming with pride about her family history, Niki was even interested in our family history too. As if we were sitting together, two friends, over bagels and appetizers, no one else in line behind us, nor four deep at the counter, she wanted to hear all about what my grandparents liked to eat at Russ & Daughters and what they used to get for their parents…
When we left, she told us to say hello to my grandparents for her. And we did.
Russ & Daughters, since 1914
179 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002
(you can spend hours on their excellent website, learning about all the different products and fish, their family history and more)
Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, since 1910
137 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002