Photo courtesy Cohen Media Group
For many Jews, much of their identity revolves around a bagel with shmear or a hot pastrami sandwich.
And in mid-20th-century America, there were plenty of places they could indulge their cultural-culinary passions. In 1931, New York City alone was home to over 1,500 kosher delicatessens.
Today, not so much. According to the new documentary “Deli Man,” there are only about 150 kosher delis in the entire U.S., and less than two dozen kosher and non-kosher delis within the five boroughs.
Filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou takes us on a mouthwatering journey from the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan to Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills with a stop at Manny’s in Chicago.
“Deli Man” is Greenberg Anjou’s third work on Jewish culture, including “The Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” They were both top-notch, moving films, but this one — you should pardon the expression — is even more delicious.
On the menu, of course, are deli mavens who bring their expertise and opinions: Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel and Larry King, who offers this: “Delis should be crowded. An empty deli is a sad thing.”
But the real star of the show is Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation deli man with schmaltz running through his veins. His grandfather opened the first deli on Broadway, The Rialto, in 1927. His uncles owned Berger’s in New York City’s diamond district and the Woodrow Deli on Long Island.
Gruber actually graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in London, trained in three-star restaurants and was bound for a career as a Michelin-starred chef. But fate intervened in the form of the annual meeting of the Delicatessen Dealers Association of Greater New York. He attended with his dad and was reminded of how much he missed the business.
Shortly thereafter he opened a deli in his native New York. Then he moved to Los Angeles, where he opened another. He’s been in Houston for the last 13 years, running Kenny and Ziggy’s New York Deli.
Gruber, a great big teddy bear of a guy, is a perfect guide through the world of delis. J. Mackye Gruber says of his brother: “Since he was a little kid he was like an 80-year-old Jew. My mother used to call him the displaced sperm. He came out in the wrong generation.”
You see that in the way he shmoozes customers, and his attitude toward the business. “The rules are simple,” he claims. “Buy good food. Prepare it well. And be a mensch.”
It really takes more than that to do it right. You also have to have a connection to your family tree. “When I cook,” Ziggy says, “I feel my ancestors around me and it makes me happy. When I smell that smell, I feel my grandfather right next to me.”
As noted in the film, deli “is not one of the more subtle foods in the world.” But then neither are its customers, as one exchange remembered by a deli man points out:
Customer: The matzoh ball soup is too salty.
Waiter: Did you try it?
Customer. No, it looks too salty.
Greenberg Anjou cooked his concoction just right for every taste. It will fill your kishkes with nostalgia, love, and hunger.