By Linc Leifeste | March 12, 2015
Director: Erik Anjou
Would you be surprised to know that there were well over 1,500 kosher delis in New York City in 1931? Or that today, that number has dwindled down to an estimated 150 across the entire country? Deli Man, a delightfully charming documentary from director Erik Anjou, examines the rise and decline of kosher delis, clearly reveling in their culinary and cultural delights. Word of warning: this is not a film you want to watch on an empty stomach. Surprisingly enough, the star of the documentary is a Texan (via New York), Ziggy Gruber, who runs Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen Restaurant, a well respected Jewish deli located in Houston.
Based on a concept that some might consider a bit thin and relying heavily on the pull of nostalgia, this is a film that will have great appeal to some while doubtlessly leaving others bored. Ziggy is himself a third generation “deli man,” a kid who grew up entranced by his grandfather and in love with the deli ran. He’s the kind of rare kid that felt more at home around his grandfather and his associates than around kids his own age. And more importantly, he felt a strong sense of cultural kinship to his grandfather and his business and what they represented to him: a connection to something older, bigger and deeper. He was on a course to be a world-class chef as a young man but gave it up to go into the deli business. His brother, on the other hand, is now making movies in L.A.
The film is equal part cursory history lesson on the beginnings of Jewish delis and their rise and decline, the story (personal and professional) of Ziggy and his life as a deli man, and an overview of these delis’ cultural and culinary appeals conveyed through the testimonies of a variety of celebrity deli-frequenters such as Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Freddie Roman and Fyvush Finkel. Nostalgia-soaked, there’s a certain sense of sadness conveyed by Ziggy and the film that such a vibrant piece of American immigrant culture has declined. But there are other voices in the film that see it all as part of life. For example, there’s a memorable scene where Ziggy is taking his elderly father around New York City and lamenting the loss of synagogues and kosher delis and the evils of homogenization it all represents to him. His father, on the other hand, says, “So what? That’s life. Nothing lasts forever.” But now, thanks to Anjou’s labor of love, Ziggy’s story, and the story of the culture behind his endeavors, can be appreciated by a much wider audience.