Saturday, March 7, 2015

'Deli Man' Paints Loving Portrait of Endangered Institution

Ziggy Gruber in front of the Royal Theatre sampling hamantaschen.
(Photo by Jefferson Graham)

The threatened culture of the Jewish delicatessen is affectionately portrayed in the new documentary, “Deli Man,” which opened this weekend in a handful of theaters across the country. We saw it at the Royal in West Los Angeles, where the smell of pickles and pastrami that happy audience members had purchased from the Canter's truck parked outside the theater only heightened the experience.

If you're a fan of matzo ball soup and pastrami on rye--heck, even if you aren't--you will love this movie. It's funny, it's touching, it's a history and a revelation. And it won't make you fat, but it will cause you to make a beeline for the nearest deli (assuming you can find one) in search of some corned beef and kreplach. It made me want to open a deli myself--except that it's clear from the film that it's a daunting, all-but-impossible business these days that only crazy-in-love deli men (and they do all seem to be men) like the doc's star, David "Ziggy" Gruber would even attempt.

As the filmmakers point out—kosher (or "kosher style"--i.e., Jewish) delis are an endangered species, with perhaps as few as 150 left in a country that used to have thousands. Surprisingly, there are a number of third-generation deli men like Ziggy for whom preserving the deli--which dates back more than 160 years to German-Jewish immigrants--is almost a religion. A former New Yorker, Ziggy runs Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen Restaurant, a thriving deli in Houston, Texas, astonishing those of us who imagine that Jewish culture and food exist only on the coasts.  

The film does a great job taking us behind the scenes as Ziggy hand slices his Nova lox, adds Manischewitz wine to his veal chops, kibitzes with his customers and jokes with his mostly Spanish-speaking employees, whom he calls his family. As one of the workers points out, Ziggy, who was inspired to continue the deli tradition by his grandfather, who ran New York's famous Rialto Delicatessen on Broadway, has a very big heart. To me, he seems like an old soul in a young body, a man on a mission to save Jewish delis and a food that was part of a culture wiped out by the Holocaust for future generations.

Ziggy's deli isn't the only one we visit in this film, the third in a Jewish documentary trilogy by Erik Greenberg Anjou. There are proprietors of establishments in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Florida, Chicago and Toronto, many, like Ziggy, third-generation. All point out how difficult it is to deal with rising costs and dietary changes that are threatening the deli culture of old, where schmaltz (chicken fat), as one author pointed out, was "the WD-40 of the kosher kitchen." But this account leaves out how very funny, nostalgic and inspiring this film is. Among those weighing in on their love of delis old and new are Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Larry King and Freddie Roman. Go see it. Then repair to your nearest deli to nourish your inner fresser (glutton).

Ziggy appeared at the Royal on opening night, taking part in a lively Q&A that demonstrated that interest in deli food and culture is definitely alive and well--at least in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to meet the real-life deli man, pictured above sampling some of my hamantaschen, which I just happened bring to the opening. “These are very good,” he said, pulling another from the bag. Hmmm... There may a future for me yet in the deli biz. 

Note: "Deli Man" made us so hungry we went to Lenny's Deli in West L.A. Read all about it here.


  1. Love this,k and deli food. Looking forward to your hamantaschen!

  2. Thanks, Donna. Hope you get to see the movie too!