More than 160 years of tradition served up by the Jewish deli owners, operators and fanatics who are keeping hot pastrami hot – and a culinary must. Just don’t tell your cardiologist.
For some, delicatessen food is close to a religious experience. A tender, crumbling cut of corned beef steeped in its juices. A full-bodied garlic dill pickle. Spicy brown mustard with grain. A blintz that melts in your mouth like a creamsicle on a summer’s day. Recipes and culinary garnishes from Hungary, Poland, Russia, Romania that flowed into late 19th and early 20th century America and soon became part of an American culinary and cultural vernacular – Deli.
Deli Man is a documentary film produced and directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou; the third work in his trilogy about Jewish culture. The celebrated preceding films are “A Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics - On Holy Ground,” which have to date screened at more than two hundred international film festivals and have been broadcast in the U.S., Israel, Canada and Poland. The principal guide of Deli Man is the effusive and charming Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation delicatessen man, owner and maven (as well as a Yiddish-speaking French trained chef) who currently operates one of the country’s top delis, Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston. Kenny and Ziggy’s has been touted in press reviews ranging from “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” to the L.A. Daily News.
“Texas?” you ask. Shalom, y’all. Because the story of the American deli is the story of Jews – their immigration, migration, upward mobility, and western assimilation. New York may always be the most populous, celebrated and redolent Jewish node. But substantial and influential Jewish tides also flowed from Chicago to Detroit, San Francisco to L.A., and Galveston to Houston and Dallas. How this burgeoning tribe moved and thrived from city to suburb and from suburb to strip mall, and in the process created a legacy and new generations of wealth, is the sunny topside of the Jewish-American journey. The shadowy understory is how that very success engendered the deterioration of the old, traditional urban block and neighborhood – the epic synagogues, Mom and Pop storefronts, and nucleus of Jewish cultural life at which deli was the succulent heart.
Every story needs a brave and trustworthy guide, and Ziggy is ours. Given the economic and culture pressures which have weighed down upon, if not gutted, the old-time deli in 21st century fitness-crazed, suburban-sprawled and assimilated Jewish America (In 1931, the City of New York’s Department of Public Markets listed 1,550 kosher delicatessen stores and 150 kosher dairy restaurants in the five boroughs; today there are approximately 21 kosher and non-kosher delis of repute), it would have been a lot easier for Ziggy to chose another livelihood. But he grew up in the business, and he loved it. His uncle and great-uncle owned Berger’s in the diamond district, and the Woodrow Deli on Long Island. His grandfather owned the famous Rialto Delicatessen on Broadway, and Ziggy was stuffing cabbages atop of a crate when he was eight. Jewish food was in his kishkes. Although fifteen-year old Ziggy enrolled in culinary school in London and subsequently did a stint at Le Gavroche with the Roux brothers and a young Gordon Ramsay, a fateful trip alongside his father to the annual dinner of the Delicatessen Dealers’ Association of Greater New York became his epiphany. The association had at one time boasted several hundred members. By the time it disbanded in the late 1980’s, only two-dozen remained. Ziggy recalls:
“I’ll never forget. I looked around the room, it was all sixty and seventy year old people. I said to myself: ‘Who is going to perpetuate our food if I don’t do it?’ That was my calling. The next day I went back to my dad and my uncle and I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this fancy shmancy business, I’m going back into the delicatessen business.’”
Of course the story of deli isn’t Ziggy’s alone. It’s the history, anecdotes and humor that once made one’s local delicatessen the virtual epicenter not only of food, but of family, laughter and community. Deli Man has visited meccas like the Carnegie, Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Nate ‘n Al and Langer’s, as well as interviewed some of the great mavens, comedians and connoisseurs of deli, including Jerry Stiller, Alan Dershowitz, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker (Ben’s Best), Fyvush Finkel, and Larry King. The documentary has also toured some of the new shining lights in the deli biz, including Wise Sons’ in San Francisco and Caplansky’s in Toronto.
A successful son may with the right nurturing and enough smoked whitefish outgrow his father. In such a way, and through films like “Broadway Danny Rose” and “When Harry Met Harry and Sally,” delis have transcended their immigrant urban adolescence and become property of Broadway, Hollywood, Montreal, the world.
You are what you eat. So join us for some raucous laughter, an existential discussion about what makes pastrami pastrami, a bissele of shpilkus, and a reminder to renew your fitness club membership.
Erik Greenberg Anjou
Producer / Director
Erik Greenberg Anjou is a graduate of Middlebury College (B.A. American Literature), Northwestern University (M.A. Film) and the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies (Directing Fellow). He has written, directed and produced in both the narrative and documentary arenas. His films have been distributed by Columbia TriStar, Canal Plus, Ergo Media and Seventh Art Releasing, and have played on distribution platforms . . . CLICK HERE TO READ MORE
Lisa Palattella’s documentary editing work has won Emmy, Gracie and Peabody awards, along with numerous prizes at film festivals around the world. She has been personally honored with the Karl Malden Award for Excellence for her editing on the Emmy Award winning “Life On Jupiter: The Story of Jens Nygaard,” and recently won Best Editing for Documentary Feature Film at DOCUTAH for her work on “Chely Wright: Wish Me Away.”. . .
Director of Photography
Dave Sperling comes to the Deli Man with more than twenty-five years experience as Director of Photography for both film and video productions. His credits include more than dozen feature films, the most recent being Girl on the Train with Ian Cusick and Stephen Lang, which is currently making the festival rounds. He also shot the award-winning television series Remember WENN and Mathnet . . .
Lorin Sklamberg is a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Yiddish-American roots band the Klezmatics. He has been heard on innumerable recordings and live shows, solo and in collaboration with such diverse artists as Itzhak Perlman, Jane Siberry, Theodore Bikel, Chava Alberstein, Ehud Banai, Yoni Rechter, Emmylou Harris, Tracy Grammer, Neil Sedaka, Natalie Merchant and Tony Kushner . . .
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With Jerry Stiller
Larry King prepares, Beverly Hills
Jack Lebewohl and Fyvush Finkel at the 2nd Avenue Deli
Houston Chicken Soup contest and crew
On location at Kenny & Ziggy's, Houston
DP David Sperling preps Professor Dershowitz
With Evan Bloom, San Francisco
With Emmy and Obie Award winner Fyvush Finkel
Ben's Best Jay Parker with shooter Roger Grange
With "Save The Deli" author David Sax at the 2nd Avenue Deli
Jerry Stiller eyeballs the day's work
Ziggy Gruber & Adam Caslow at ACME Smoked Fish, Brooklyn