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Published Thursday, April 2, 2015

Filling Deli Documentary Goes Down Easy

By Michael Fox

Ziggy Gruber holds one of his famous hearty deli sandwiches.

With apologies to Jon Landau (and Bruce Springsteen), I have seen the future of Jewish deli and his name is Ziggy Gruber.

The force, personality and culinary talent behind Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston, Gruber serves as the garrulous star of Erik Greenberg Anjou’s enjoyable feature documentary, “Deli Man.”

A light-on-its-feet overview of the past, present and uncertain future of Jewish delis, “Deli Man” ranges far and wide but always comes back to the portly thirty-something who (like so many deli owners before him) is the master both of his kitchen and the front of the house.

Combining an unwavering loyalty to the work ethic and flavors of his late grandfather — a New York deli man — and his talent for the modern culinary arts, Gruber effortlessly bridges the generations. Anjou’s face must have lit up like a kugel when he met Gruber, and realized he’d found the perfect person to build his film around.

We are reminded that German Jews opened the first delis in New York in the 1840s, replicating the establishments and menus they left behind. The tens of thousands of Russian Jews who flowed from shtetls through Ellis Island a few decades later discovered this (literally) foreign concept, and in due time made it their own: Dozens, if not hundreds, opened their own restaurants, with Russian mainstays supplanting German dishes.

“Deli Man” moves on to the American Jewish experience of the 20th century as embodied by family-owned delis in urban centers, with old-school proprietors and celebrities happily remembering favorite dishes and boisterous meals. As pleasurable as it is to see and hear Fyvush Finkel and Jerry Stiller, it’s not really necessary. Every Jew has passions and memories around delis, and which trump everyone else’s.

At some point in the kinetic history of working-class urban America, non-Jews discovered these fast-food pioneers of hearty get-it-to-go sandwiches. (How could they not, with a deli on seemingly every New York block?) Though Jews claim matzoh ball soup, smoked salmon and corned beef as part of our cultural identity, deli food crossed over to the mainstream.

In recent decades, however, many people have reduced their consumption of meat, fat and salt, and delis have shuttered across the country. It’s mainly Jewish proprietors and customers who keep the institution alive.

Ziggy Gruber embraces his lineage and responsibility, adhering to a remarkable standard of quality while pining for his grandfather’s lost gravy recipe. As his brother says, “Since he was a little kid, he’s been an 80-year-old Jew.”

Kenny & Ziggy’s is a success story that gives us hope for the future of the deli, but it’s also an exception: Texans will drive for half an hour for a meal without blinking. Every other deli in the country has to rely on a clientele within a ten-minute radius.

Anjou, whose previous film was the marvelous “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground,” wisely doesn’t indulge in thick slices of nostalgia or overly heavy dissertations on the meaning and myth of the deli. He’s made an engaging, entertaining oral history of an aspect of everyday life that recognizes a simple truth: Things change and nothing lasts forever. But heck, wouldn’t it be nice?

“Deli Man” will be screened at closing night of the North Shore Jeweish Film Festival on Thursday, May 14 at the Salem Visitors Center. $25 includes the deli reception. For more information and tickets, go to jccns.org or contact Karen Bar-Or at 781-476-9902 or kbar-or@jccns.com. Sponsorships are still available.

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