ZIGGY GRUBER makes kugel in the kitchen of Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston, Texas.
(photo credit: COHEN MEDIA)
Ashkenazi Jewish food is “having a moment” in the United States.
Or at least so says cookbook author and food writer Janna Gur. And her statement is certainly credible – books, films and even throwback restaurants featuring the traditional Eastern European fare are popping up all over the place, long after the Jewish Lower East Side has all but disappeared.
But, according to the new documentary film Deli Man – which opened in select theaters across the US this weekend – today there are only 150 Jewish delis left in all of North America. This figure is a far cry from the once thousands of mom-and-pop delicatessens that sprinkled the US over the first half of the 21st century.
Deli Man, produced by filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou, gets up close and personal with the owners and managers of more than a dozen of the remaining delis in the US and Canada. But the true star of the film is Ziggy Gruber, the exuberant and larger-than-life proprietor of Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston, Texas.
Deli Man is Anjou’s third film on Jewish life and traditions, following 2005’s A Cantor’s Tale and 2010’s The Klezmatics – On Holy Ground.
The movie opens with plaintive music playing over shots of ketchup and mustard bottles, stacks of smoked meats and piles of whitefish. But things quickly turn more festive as we watch Gruber get started with his day, accepting deliveries, organizing the kitchen, and getting a move on.
The film hits a dual note – both mourning a world that once was, while celebrating those who choose to continue it. It is upbeat but nostalgic, humorous but informative, and most of all entertaining.
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Anjou interviewed the owners and managers of delis in New York, Toronto, San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey, among others, plus a variety of deli enthusiasts, including Alan Dershowitz, Larry King, Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel.
“Only the meshuggenas go into” the deli business, says David Sax, author of Save the Deli in the film. And while it would be a little unfair to call Gruber the Yiddish word for crazy, he’s certainly full of character.
We watch the heavyset but boyish 45-year-old not just work, but cook dinner with his girlfriend, work out at the gym, and even receive acupuncture to deal with his stress. He beams with pride at his collection of vintage delicatessen menus, and takes a trip to New York for the sake of talking shop with some of the remaining owners in the business. Gruber peppers his speech with Yiddishism, and talks with the type of New York accent not generally heard in those under age 75. “Since he was a little kid he’s been an 80-year-old Jew,” said his brother.
Gruber got started in the family business at age eight, dropped out of high school at age 15 and trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London before landing a job at one of the city’s top restaurants.
“I cooked for the Queen of England on more than one occasion,” he recalled, “but there was something missing.” Gruber recounts an incredible closeness with his grandparents, who owned the famed Rialto Deli in New York, and a longing to continue their traditions. So he headed back to New York where he opened his first deli, then turned to one in Los Angeles before opening in Houston 15 years ago.
“When I cook, I feel my ancestors around me, and it feels good,” he said. “That’s what makes me happy, and that’s what drives me.”
Owners of eateries including the 2nd Avenue Deli, Carnegie Deli, Wise and Sons, Artie’s Deli and more chime in on the challenges and joys of the business – as they serve up everything from pastrami on rye to cheese blintzes, matzo ball soup and chopped liver. They all note a devotion to the job, a difficulty making ends meet and a questionable future in the business.
As Gruber’s uncle notes, most of their traditional customers “either died or moved to Florida.”
But the owners in Deli Man soldier on, selling their wares to both old and new generations of food lovers.
“A deli should be crowded,” said Larry King, the longtime CNN host. “An empty deli is a sad day.”
Anjou told the The Jerusalem Post he is looking to bring Deli Man to screen in Israel, and further information will be available this spring.
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