Joel Russ started selling pickled herring from a pushcart on Hester Street in the 1910s, and later made history by naming his three daughters full partners in his burgeoning business. 100 years later, the “sturgeon queens” of Russ and Daughters, the family business, are the subject of a documentary by Julie Cohen, featuring celebrity homages to Scotch salmon, herring in sour cream, and smoked whitefish salad by the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Calvin Trillin.
Daughters Hattie and Anne, once the “lovely ladies filleting herring” that made the store such a draw, are the focus of Cohen’s film. At 95 and 87, they’ve forgotten nothing: the demands of their “taskmaster” father, visits to the store by Yiddish theater royalty. Cohen also enlists the help of some octogenarian herring aficionados—longtime customers—to read aloud from a script that outlines the pushcart-to-storefront story of the Russ family’s success.
Besides the joy of watching the Russ sisters recall their lox-slicing techniques, The Sturgeon Queens features plenty of great New York moments, including Cohen’s interviews with the early morning crowd outside Russ before Yom Kippur. It doesn’t matter how big a macher you are: you still wait in line for your Nova.
March 4, 2014