What is your favorite sandwich, pastrami on rye, brisket, corned beef, roast beef? The only place you will be able to get a sumptuous, juicy, tender, spicy pastrami on delicious fresh rye, slathered with a deep tangy mustard with a side of fresh, home made cole slaw, and sharp, garlicky pickle is at a Deli. Not your grocer with pre-packaged salads, sliced meats and cheeses, wrapped bakery items, produce and flowers out front. No. You will most probably be able to get a really great sandwich at one of those old-fashioned Jewish Delis that cooks and prepares everything from scratch: the briskets, the corned beef, the pastrami, the challahs, the knishs, the matzah ball soup, the veal chops, the kasha varnishkes, the noodle kugel, the kreplach,. The list of delicious foods goes on forever. But the places that offer these marvelous dishes do not. In fact they are becoming so rare, the concept and reality of the old-fashioned Jewish Deli may be on the verge of extinction.
The visually delectable documentary Deli Man directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou in its New York Premiere at the 24th New York Jewish Film Festival thrums a paen to the marvelous concept of the real, bona fide Jewish Deli, its history, and importance to generations of New Yorkers and citi-folk around the nation. The film is a mouth watering photographic stunner as it captures the amazing taste fest Delis offer. You will walk out the doors of the movie theater wishing that was not a popcorn and candy stand you just passed, but that a deli man with wrapped pastrami or corned beef sandwiches was ready to hand them to you so you could enjoy them on the way home as you considered the various foods the deli man would serve up on your next visit.
Anjou has captured what is the most fun about Delis, by focusing on a number of delis around the nation from San Francisco to New York, to Houston, Texas, to Toronto, etc. Delis are concentrated everywhere there is a substantial Jewish population who knows and understands Jewish foods. The filmmaker takes the viewer behind the scenes and shows the activities of some of the most noted deli men in the country, second and third generation folks who have carried on the family deli business out of a passion and love of the deli culture, the people, the food. These delis, Ben’s Best in Queens, proprietor Jay Parker, David Ziggy Gruber of Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston, the Wise Sons in San Francisco, the Carnegie Deli in NYC, Ben and Izzy’s in Toronto, Canada and others are highlighted.
The director has wisely chosen to focus on David Ziggy Gruber (Kenny’s and Ziggy’s in Houston) as the iconic, humorous Deli Man to serve as a guide through the warren of the deli’s past and present iterations in order to forecast the future hopes for this amazing distillation of ethnic culture and foods from Eastern Europe. Just beyond the visual aromas of pastrami and brisket and the beautiful piled high plates of fries and steaming bowls of chicken soup that photographer David Sperling tantalizes us with, we hear a faint death knell tolling and are brought to an understanding why. This food is from cultures that have faded and long since been wiped off the map of Europe in the Holocaust.
Where of delis thrived on every corner of New York City during the Depression and after, their numbers have collapsed making way for fast food joints, niche restaurants, corporate box stores and a disintegration of the neighborhoods that kept delis in business. In the 160 long years that delis have been around, there are a comparatively dwindling few left in the nation, 21 noted delis, Kosher and non-Kosher to be specific, and perhaps 200 delis nationally. Coupled with the expense of the finest meats to be used, and an American culture that is increasingly vegetarian, it is understandable how this could happen. But as Anjou captures David Ziggy Gruber’s humorous take on deli’s, his joie de vivre and great generosity, we wholeheartedly agree with Gruber’s mission to make sure that the culture, the foods and the deli ambiance are carried on into subsequent generations. Delis are too magnificent to fall into oblivion.
As witnesses to the wonder of the Jewish Deli, Anjou has included clips and quotes from those who are intimately acquainted with pastrami and rye, kasha varnishkes and kreplach: Larry King, Professor Alan Dershowitz, Fyvush Fival, Jerry Stiller and the deli men themselves who admittedly are “crazy for being in this business,” but who wouldn’t have it any other way. From the time David Gruber’s grandfather threw an apron at the 8-year-old and said, “You’re old enough to make a living,” David Gruber, an award winning haute cuisine chef knew that he was going to carry on the family torch and keep the deli fires burning. The film cleverly chronicles just enough of his life and intercuts quotes and clips from the other deli men to affirm that they, too, are carrying the torch of the family business in a third or fourth generational marathon run into the future.
The documentary is uplifting and the individuals quoted are funny and candid. Anjou emphasizes the importance of what we have lost as the small, generational family businesses with their steady work ethic, attention to quality and satisfying the customer have given way to the cold, unemotional, corporate ethic of greed.
The film is a wake up call, reminding us that we must not forget who we are and where we came from, as it is represented in the foods we eat and the recipes we cherish from grandparents and great grandparents. Deli Man is a unique celebration of old world European culture and all the love that these noted deli men put into their “home-cooked-meals” which solidify our appreciation and connection with our ancestors. As we savor every bite of a “meal made from scratch” from a recipe that hales centuries of tweaking based upon the fluid events of history, we can heartily identify as we savor the deliciousness. This is a comfort and a cultural tradition that threatens to pass us by unless we keep it alive. The documentary Deli Man is doing its part with its sumptuous photography and great good will. I think I’ll stop in at Ben’s Best nearby and try the brisket to celebrate the opening of the film on February 27th.
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