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The Schmooze

Ziggy Gruber — A ‘Deli Man’ for All Seasonings

After spending an hour at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen with young Forward reader, Galitzianer Yiddish-speaking third generation deli man Ziggy Gruber — a featured deli owner in the must see “Deli Man” — I was ready to jet to Houston, Texas where he and partner Kenny Friedman reign over a deli called Kenny and Ziggy’s and the menu includes such gustatory delights as “ Luck Be a Latka,” “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Schmaltz” “Genghis Cohen’s Chicken Salad” and my favorite title “Fiddler on the Roof of Your Mouth.”

“You never know where fate takes you,” he told me. When Houston was suggested as a destination for his deli, Ziggy said, “My first concern was ‘Are there any Yiddishe people there?’ When I got there I was blown away. The Jewish community is very tight, warm and loving–not cliquish. It’s like a shtetl there — ‘come into our community and we will do everything we can to support you.’” Commenting on the long history of the Jews in Houston he noted that there are Jewish graves dating back to the 1600’s.

A graduate of the Cordon Bleu Culinary School in London (he even cooked for the Queen of England), Ziggy described his creations with reverential flair. “My dishes have Yiddish tam. When you taste them it’s not like a shteyn (a stone) but light, and you can get up from the table. My blintzes are light as a feather and took 25 years to develop. My stuffed cabbage is legendary…. Our clientele is of all ages… Jews, non-Jews. I probably have the most extensive traditional menu — chicken fricassee with meatballs and pipik (belly button) goulash…Romanian steaks, all kinds of smoked fish, gehakte leber (chopped liver) and [Romanian] karnatzkalakh. The younger crowd can get a black walnut raspberry salad, Sashimi tuna. I make Hungarian potato noodles — Jewish gnocchi. A lot of kids went on Birthright to Israel so we have incorporated Israeli fare. I invited half the Israeli consulate in Houston and they went wild for the shashuka.”

Married to Mary — who appears in the film — Ziggy said: “She was in the process of conversion when I met her. Every Friday night my wife makes sure we light candles and say prayers together. Her family is Cajun [from Louisiana]. My wife loves my matzoh balls — we toss them into the gumbo.” Visiting the family in Baton Rouge he recalled, “the whole Jewish community made us honorary members.” Kvelling about “my 3 ½ week old child” Ziggy said, “We have to teach these kinderlakh (kiddies) Yiddish and vowed: “I will sponsor a Mommy and Me [Yiddish] class.”

Married in Budapest’s historic Dohany synagogue, Ziggy got emotional. “Going back to Hungary was very important to me. There were forty people at the wedding, a 20-piece Klezmer band. Fifty family members [who perished in the Holocaust] are inscribed on a stainless steel tree in the synagogue’s courtyard.

Ziggy mused: “Everyone has something to chase in their life and I am chasing my grandfather’s amazing gravy.” A week later, thanks to packed-in-ice Ship Direct, sampled Ziggy’s culinary artistry — including the “legendary” stuffed cabbage and other deli delights [gluten free] — and I can attest that Ziggy told the truth. His maykhls (dishes) are what deli dreams are made of.

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