For some, delicatessen food is close to a religious experience. A tender, crumbling cut of corned beef steeped in its juices. A full-bodied garlic dill pickle. Spicy brown mustard with grain. A blintz that melts in your mouth like a creamsicle on a summer’s day. Recipes and culinary garnishes from Hungary, Poland, Russia, Romania that flowed into late 19th and early 20th century America and soon became part of an American culinary and cultural vernacular – Deli.
DELI MAN is a documentary film produced and directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou; the third work in his trilogy about Jewish culture. The celebrated preceding films are “A Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics – On Holy Ground,” which have to date screened at more than two hundred international film festivals and have been broadcast in the U.S., Israel, Canada and Poland. The principal guide of DELI MAN is the effusive and charming Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation delicatessen man, owner and maven (as well as a Yiddish-speaking French trained chef) who currently operates one of the country’s top delis, Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston, Texas. Kenny and Ziggy’s has been touted in press reviews ranging from “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” to the L.A. Daily News.
Every story needs a brave and trustworthy guide, and Ziggy is ours. Given the economic and culture pressures which have weighed down upon, if not gutted, the old-time deli, it would have been a lot easier for Ziggy to chose another livelihood. In 21st century fitness-crazed, suburban-sprawled and assimilated Jewish America, there are approximately 21 kosher and non-kosher delis of repute in NYC’s Five Boroughs, whereas in 1931, the City’s Department of Public Markets listed 1,550 kosher delicatessen stores and 150 kosher dairy restaurants.
Ziggy, however, grew up in the business, and he loved it. His uncle and great-uncle owned Berger’s in the diamond district, and the Woodrow Deli on Long Island. His grandfather owned the famous Rialto Delicatessen on Broadway, and Ziggy was stuffing cabbages atop of a crate when he was eight. Jewish food was in his kishkes. Although eighteen-year old Ziggy enrolled in culinary school in London and subsequently did a stint at the Waterside Inn with a young Gordon Ramsay, a fateful trip alongside his father to the annual dinner of the Delicatessen Dealers’ Association of Greater New York became his epiphany. The association had at one time boasted several hundred members. By the time it disbanded in the late 1980’s, only two-dozen remained. Ziggy recalls, “I’ll never forget. I looked around the room, it was all sixty and seventy-year old people. I said to myself: ‘Who is going to perpetuate our food if I don’t do it?’ That was my calling. The next day I went back to my dad and my uncle and I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this fancy-shmancy business, I’m going back into the delicatessen business.’”
Of course the story of deli isn’t Ziggy’s alone. It’s the history, anecdotes and humor that once made one’s local delicatessen the virtual epicenter not only of food, but of family, laughter and community. DELI MAN has visited meccas like the Carnegie, Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Nate ‘n Al, and Canter’s, as well as interviewed some of the great connoisseurs of deli, including Jerry Stiller, Alan Dershowitz, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker (Ben’s Best), Fyvush Finkel, and Larry King. The documentary has also toured some of the new shining lights in the deli biz, including Wise Son’s in San Francisco and Caplansky’s in Toronto.
A successful son may (with the right nurturing and enough smoked whitefish) outgrow his father. In much the same way (aided by high visibility in films like BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY), delis have transcended their immigrant urban adolescence and become property of Broadway, Hollywood, Montreal, the world.
You are what you eat. So join for some raucous laughter, an existential discussion about what makes pastrami pastrami, a bissele of shpilkus, and a reminder to renew your fitness club membership.