‘Deli Man’: Documents a vanishing restaurant culture

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For Digital First Media

The documentary, “Deli Man,” cobbles together archival material from a bygone era with interviews of current day entrepreneurs, who are trying to perpetuate delicatessen culture.

The film does an excellent job of enlisting experts to place delicatessens in a sociohistorical framework. David Sax, author of “Save the Deli,’ which won the James Beard Award, and Jane Ziegelman, director of the culinary program at New York’s Tenement Museum, are on hand to provide knowledgeable context.

The original American delicatessens are attributed to the German immigrants. When they arrived in New York’s Lower East Side, during the 1840s, they established these food outlets. Many of the items that they purveyed contained pork. German Jews adapted the delicatessen concept. However, in deference to the kosher food restrictions of their patrons, they excluded pork products.

In the 1890s, there was an influx of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. They were fleeing the Czarist oppression and pervasive pogroms in the shtetls.  Sweat shop employees were particularly fond of delicatessens, which purveyed relatively inexpensive, quickly available food. The delicatessens evolved to cater to the culinary appetites of immigrants from the pale. At that time, smoked pastrami, a foodstuff from Romania, became a staple of delicatessens.

By the 1930s, delicatessens reached their high water mark. A survey of New York City’s Department of Public Markets listed 1,550 kosher delicatessens in the five boroughs alone. It is estimated that there roughly double that number of non-kosher delicatessens at that time.

Although delicatessens took on a distinctively Jewish quality, they were widely patronized by Jews and gentiles alike. As newspaperman and author, Damon Runyon, opined, “There are two types of people in the world, those who love delis and those you shouldn’t associate with.”

Delicatessens were also established in other American cities, where immigrant populations were concentrated. This included Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit.

“Deli Man” references many of the famed establishments of the past. New York’s Carnegie Deli is cited as a place that purveyed sandwiches so gargantuan that afterwards you needed a jaw adjustment.

Adding to the color of the film, Greenberg interviews some quintessential New Yorkers, who are delicatessen enthusiasts. This includes television and radio host, Larry King; comedian, Jerry Stiller; and 92-year old veteran of the Yiddish theater, Fyvush Finkel. With considerable nostalgia, they recount the golden era of delicatessens.

From their apex in the 1930s, the number of delicatessens in the United States has plummeted to a mere 150 in the entire United States. “Deli Man” simultaneously celebrates the delicatessen culture that thrived in the past and bemoans their demise.

“Deli Man” also interviews some of the current day proprietors of delicatessens. One, who dominates the film, is David “Ziggy” Gruber.  A gregarious anecdotist,  he recalls his days growing up in New York as the third generation of a family in the delicatessen business.  At 15, Gruber trained in a London culinary school. Thereafter, he worked at Le Gavorche with the Roux Brothers. However, when Ziggy attended the annual dinner of the Delicatessen Dealers’ Association of Greater New York, he noticed that there were only septuagenarians and octogenarians in attendance. Ziggy resolved that he would carry on the tradition. The following day, he told his family, ‘I’ve had enough of this fancy, shmancy business, I’m going back into the delicatessen business.’ Today, he operates Kenny & Ziggy’s in the somewhat unlikely location of Houston. Texas.

This is the third documentary by Erik Greenberg Anjou. His previous films, ‘”A Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics-On Holy Ground,” also focused on Jewish subject matter.

“Deli Man” is a highly informative and entertaining documentary. It details not only the evolution of the delicatessen, but the Jewish diaspora.

Before you go to see “Deli Man,” just be sure that you eat. Otherwise, your stomach will rumble at the onscreen depiction of oversized sandwiches, stuffed cabbages, and kugel.

*** PG-13 (for some language) 90 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Deli Man" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCXTJGIpY7k

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Deli Man” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCXTJGIpY7k

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