Mark Russ Federman, grandson of the original Russ of Russ & Daughters, took over the family business in 1978. Recently, his nephew, Josh, and daughter, Niki—the fourth generation—stepped in to run the store, which has been an “appetizing” institution on Houston Street since 1914. But Mark can still often be found behind the counter—white jacket and all—talking salmon and caviar with regulars. We wondered if his fantasy last meal would be a smoked-fish bonanza, or perhaps a totally treif surprise. Turns out it was neither.
So, you’re looking for me because–what? I’m about to keel over?
No! Just because you’re fun.
Okay, so, what would my last meal be? It doesn’t matter if I’m on death row or I’m just dying, right?
Well, If you want to imagine the surrounding details, go ahead.
No, thanks. But I did give some thought to the food. And clearly, the first thing I would eat before I die is herring, because, according to me, herring is the best thing for your health. It doesn’t matter if it’s pickled, maatjes, whatever. It cures any ailment you could possibly have, including “you’re about to die.”
I had no idea.
But, on the off-chance that it doesn’t work, what else would I eat, right?
Something my mother would have produced. She did not pretend to be, and wasn’t known as, a great cook, because she was always at the store. But, insofar as she cooked, there were a few dishes I’d want to eat–the food I was brought into the world with, and the food I would want to leave the world with. The Jews are big on going full circle.
She turned out a respectable stuffed cabbage, chicken fricassee, and maybe a lamb stew. For dessert, just a nice piece of fruit. She could pick fruit with the best of them. That’s all I’d want, assuming I could make peace with the fact that I was about to die.
Right, there’s that.
My mother is still alive, but she’s not cooking anymore. She would make this meal for me, though. Anyway, even when she was cooking, she wasn’t really cooking. Actually, wait–you know what she made really well? Mushroom barley soup. She used imported dried Polish mushrooms, the ones we sell at the store. Even smelling them is like Mother Earth.
What kind of mushrooms?
They’re in the porcini family, but more intense. And she would make the soup with flanken. That dish might have to be in the mix.
It sounds like it should definitely be in the mix.
And all that meaning would be in it.
Who would you eat with?
All the Russes! I would find whoever was around, and we’d all eat together. We’re Russes. We’re all about family and fish. But the meal is really about the herring. My hope, after bragging about it for 93 years, is that the line would work:’if you eat this herring for 100 years, you’ll live for a long time’.
It would be a test. What would you drink with this meal?
What would I want to drink? I don’t know. I’m not a liquor drinker. Although, I might want to forget what was about to happen… But even if you’re a wine drinker, there’s no wine that would go with all this. An egg cream wouldn’t work at all. Maybe seltzer. Yeah, I’d drink seltzer.