Photo courtesy Cohen Media Group
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Like many other aspects of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, old-time Jewish delicacies are becoming harder and harder to find. In 1931 there were more than 2,500 delis and 150 kosher dairy restaurants in New York City alone; today there are only 21 delis left in the Big Apple. Erik Greenberg Anjou’s film “Deli Man,” which is now playing nationwide, explores the history of the American-Jewish deli and its precipitous decline through the men seeking to keep deli culture alive, chief among them “deli man” Ziggy Gruber.
Gruber, a 40-something New York Jew, has run Kenny and Ziggy’s Delicatessen in Houston, Texas for the past 15 years. Gruber grew up in the deli industry. “How did I start working in delis?” Gruber repeated the question during a telephone interview. “Well, when I was 8 my grandfather threw an apron at me and said ‘come with me. It’s time to make a living.’ And he taught me how to cook real heymishe (down-home) Yiddish food and work in the deli.”
Ziggy Gruber has an impeccable pedigree in the world of Jewish delis; his family is made up of three generations of “deli men.” His grandfather Max came to America from Budapest at age 16 and soon began working in Jewish restaurants. Together with his brother-in-laws Izzy and Morris Rappaport, Max opened the first deli on Broadway, the famous Rialto Deli in 1927. The restaurant was a huge success and they soon opened other popular delis, including Berger’s Delicatessen on 47th street, Wally’s Downtown and The Griddle on 16th street. Their delis attracted some of the biggest celebrities of the time, including Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.
“Quietly, unexpectedly — and without anybody bothering to consult me — Jewish food has become really, really good,” The Guardian’s food critic Jay Rayner said at London’s Jewish Book Week earlier this month. “Frankly, I’m appalled.” Rayner was referring to London’s new love affair with Middle Eastern food. Salt beef and bagels and lox are out – Israeli cuisine with bold and aromatic Sephardic flavors is in.
Yotam Ottolenghi was the one who started it all. His eponymous delis in Notting Hill, Islington and Belgravia introduced Middle Eastern flavors to London in a way that was inciting, healthy and bountiful, working with eye-catching platters of fresh vegetables in a way opposite to how English cuisine treated (and still treats) fresh produce. His cookbooks “Plenty” and “Jerusalem,” as well as his television series on Middle Eastern food, brought his passions and ideas to a wider audience.
Ottolenghi is to London today what Gordon Ramsay was (more broadly) a decade or so ago, in the sense that those who have worked and trained with him have gone on to found their own establishments. Sarit Packer and her husband Itamar Srulovich opened Honey & Co. in 2012, a tiny restaurant with only 10 tables on Warren Street. Such has been their success that they signed a book deal back in 2013; “Honey & Co.: Food From the Middle East” was published last year.
While it may seem as though deli food is the only grub worthy of cinematic treatment, some foolish auteurs have tackled others. Here are some of the best food films ever, in our humble opinion.
1. The Hundred-Foot Journey (Lasse Hallström, 2014)
Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) is not pleased when Indian immigrants open a restaurant 100 feet across the road from her small Michelin-starred establishment. Did I really have to say more than Helen Mirren?
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.
Except Zane Caplansky, the deli’s owner, inked the deal months ago. And while he expected some backlash, the war’s escalation has cast an outsized spotlight on his support of the tiny film fest in Canada’s largest city.
“This was not some grand political statement,” Caplansky told the Forward from Toronto. “I’m not taking sides. I have no agenda other than community building, cross-cultural understanding, and a nice gesture for this film festival.”
Caplansky said he reached out to festival organizers In January. “I was doing some work with an organization called Action Against Hunger. One of their staffers mentioned TPFF. I had no idea it even existed,” he said.
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