Appetizing. You think you know what it means: tasty, enticing you to eat. But in the early 20th century, among the Eastern European Jewish immigrants living on New York City's Lower East Side, appetizing was more commonly used as a noun, referring to the delicious array of foods -- smoked fish, cream cheeses, cold salads -- that were traditionally eaten with bagels. Back then, there were upward of 30 "appetizing" stores in the neighborhood. Today, only one remains: Russ & Daughters.
The business was founded in 1914 by Joel Russ, a pushcart vendor who had arrived from Poland just seven years earlier. In the '30s, he brought on his daughters, Hattie, Ida, and Anne, as partners. "It became known as the quality place," says Mark Russ Federman, Anne Russ Federman's son, who ran the store for 30 years before passing the reins to the fourth generation, his daughter Niki Russ Federman and nephew Josh Russ Tupper, in 2001. "If your name is on the door, you're going to pay attention to every piece of fish and every customer."
A century later, it's still the quality of the food -- the best smoked salmon, pickled herring, caviar, whitefish salad, and more -- that keeps customers coming, especially around the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the line often stretches out the door and mail-order boxes pile up on Houston Street.
Traditionally, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer, capped off by a celebratory evening meal (called the "break-fast") of bagels and everything that goes with them. When it comes to entertaining, break-fast represents a challenge: The hosts often arrive home from synagogue at the same time as their guests, and because of the fast and the prohibition against work, no cooking can be done on the holy day. The answer, for many, is buying everything in advance from Russ & Daughters.
Given the crowds, the atmosphere can get cutthroat. "Customers try anything to be helped before their turn," says Josh. "One year, a lady who looked to be about 80 told our manager, 'I can't wait on line because I'm pregnant.' " Another year, a customer who actually was pregnant -- and whose water broke -- chose to wait for her Yom Kippur spread before heading to the hospital.
For Mark, Niki, and Josh, the lead-up to the holiday can be exhausting, but on the day itself, they get to enjoy the fruits -- or, rather, the fishes -- of their labor. "We work long days for weeks, but we always gather for a meal," says Niki. "It's all about family and friends." And, of course, amazing food.
See more amazing food, get Russ family recipes, and learn about smoked and pickled fish in our Russ and Daughters photo gallery.