I'll give you the bad news first: Russ & Daughters threw a herring party and you missed it. A herring party! There were seven different tables of herring snacks, each paired with a different drink. One of the tables had Wylie Dufresne serving you crazy science; one was a giant ice sculpture holding endless New Catch Holland herrings, the which has just come into season and that one eats raw (brined just barely in salt water), dangling it from its tail overhead like a bunch of grapes. Buttery is the word. Oh, and John Zorn played, and there was a photo booth with an awesome old camera. And Mark Russ Federman, the now-retired third generation owner of the store, was giving little talks and reading from his upcoming memoir, The House that Herring Built, from Shocken Books.
But the good news is this: the best thing to eat that night was the Holland herring, which you can still get at the store. Russ & Daughters is a direct importer of this annual treat.
In the name of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm a big fan of Russ & Daughters, and have even occasionally found myself working the register during holidays. I consider the management friends. So I suppose I'm biased. But then again, show me a New York food writer who's not in love with the place. If this were the early 1900s, there would be dozens of family-owned Jewish appetizing shops on the Lower East Side, and we would nitpick about which was the best (probably the one with no sign on the awning)—but it's not, and we're all thankful that one so dedicated to quality survived.
The herring party was not just a success because of the copious good food and booze, but because it was fueled by the same energy that fills the store. Strangers were chatting enthusiastically, as if they were in line on East Houston Street on a busy day—only tipsy. Niki Russ Federman said afterward, "What we do is centered around food, but it's really the emotions and history and stories that makes it special. The fact that we could carry the intimacy and openness of the store over makes me really happy."