The Sturgeon Queens, a documentary about Russ & Daughters, premieres tonight on Channel 13. Don't miss it. In the meantime, a Q&A with director Julie Cohen.
Q: What inspired you to make this film?
A: In 2008 I made a film for channel 13 called "The Jews of New York" of which Russ & Daughters was one of six segments. For that program I interviewed Anne & Hattie, two of the three "daughters" for whom the store was named. At the time of our interview they were 88 and 95. They had style, great, poignant stories to tell, and the comic timing of borscht belt entertainers. It also didn't hurt that they had lovely singing voices and reminded me of my own grandmothers. I'd always wanted to go back and make a film just about Russ & Daughters using more of that amazing 2-hour interview. With the store's 100th anniversary in 2014, I knew this was the year for it.
Q: What was your favorite part of making the film?
A: That's a tie: A) the day I spent with Anne & Hattie at their condo complex in Florida hearing what it was like to work 12-hour days in an unheated store pulling herring from barrels for demanding customers. And B) the day we recorded our narration. Ordinarily, recording voiceovers is a pretty boring, uneventful part of the process. But for this film our narrators were 6 longtime Russ & Daughters customers in their 70s, 80s and 90s. These aren't professional actors, so I was really blown away by the feeling they put into the reading. And the fact that they didn't always read the script exactly as I'd written it led to some of the funniest moments of that day, and ultimately of the completed film.
Q: How has Russ & Daughters played an important role in the neighborhood?
A: The great thing about R & D is that they appeal to both elements that make the Lower East Side what it is: the older Jews who remember childhood trips to the neighborhood with their parents and grandparents, and the young, often tattooed hipsters who've decided, for whatever reason, that lox is cool. For the most part these two groups stick to their own territories. Russ & Daughters is the big exception, where the hip and the haimish converge. There's something pretty awesome about that.
Q: What's your favorite item on the menu?
A: I'd vote for the pickled herring in cream sauce. This is not the fanciest item, but the combination of that unique soft fish with the slightly sweet sour cream sauce and the crisp onions reminds me of childhood breakfasts with my grandparents, only better.
Q: How do you like the new R&D restaurant?
A: Love it. There are purists who believe that standing and waiting on the counter line at the store is an essential part of the Russ & Daughters experience. But I'm definitely not such a purist. To me, the cafe experience is more fun. I love sitting in a big comfortable booth to enjoy my smoked fish. And I'm an especially big fan of the new menu items: the borscht is incredible, the smoked fish salads make a great, healthy meal, and do not even get me started on the halvah ice cream. I have a serious sweet tooth and I'd put it up against any dessert at any restaurant in NYC.
The film will air on WNET/13 Dec 2 at 10 pm and on WLIW/21 Dec 3 at 7:30 pm. It is expected to air on PBS stations outside New York sometime in mid-2015.
Watch the trailer here