There’s a lot of schmaltz—in both senses of the term—in “Deli Man,” Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary. It’s essentially a profile of Houston restaurateur David “Ziggy” Gruber, but also uses him as an entrée into deli cuisine and delicatessen culture as a whole, which is presented as emblematic of Jewish life in America. At once a celebration and a quasi-historical analysis, it may try to stuff too much into a ninety-minute span, but rather like a Dagwood-height pastrami sandwich it’s pretty darned tasty.
Gruber is the proprietor of Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston. Described by his brother as a guy who “has been an 80-old Jew since he was a kid,” Ziggy worked in the business with his grandfather in New York before going off to study haute cuisine with chef Gordon Ramsay. But he returned to his roots to carry on the tradition of his granddad and father. Much of the film is devoted to his work in the deli, supervising the cooking and waiting staff and making sure that the food is authentically prepared and the customers properly chatted up. But his devotion to the deli tradition is also covered: he collects souvenirs from classic delis of the past, and when he goes on vacation with his wife, he visits other delis and compares notes with their equally-obsessed owners.
Those owners are part of Anjou’s film as well, offering observations about their operations—not only in New York and Chicago but Toronto and Los Angeles—some of which remain absolutely traditional while others are experimenting with changes to the menu. What joins all of them together is devotion to a tradition that the picture looks at historically through archival material about New York’s Lower East Side from the mid-nineteenth century to the twentieth (with segments on legendary eateries like Lindy’s, the Stage and Carnegie’s), as well as occasional anecdotes from old-time customers like Jerry Stiller, Larry King and Fyvush Finkel (with a brief cameo by lawyer Alan Dershowitz). Added to that is more scholarly commentary from people like historians Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex and David Sax. It’s Wex who delivers what’s perhaps the best among the many witticisms dropped in the course of the conversations, when he describes schmaltz—chicken fat—as “the WD-40 of the kosher kitchen—and the KY of the Jewish marriage, too.” Sax, however, strikes a more mournful tone when he observes that deli cuisine derives from the Eastern European shtetls whose populations were destroyed in the Holocaust—“an immigrant food from a place immigrants no longer come from,” as he puts it.
That undercurrent of melancholy carries over into the observation that deli culture seems on the way out, as a result of demographic changes (the film observes the movement of Jews from the north to southern climes, like Houston) and concerns with healthful diets. The film reports that in 1930 there were 1,500 kosher delis in New York’s five boroughs, not counting the non-kosher ones. Now there are around 150 in all of North America. When Ziggy Gruber returns to his grandfather’s old neighborhood with his dad, an old man barely able to walk with a cane, he bemoans the changes that have occurred, wiping out much of the past. His father observes sagely that that’s how life is—things change, people die.
And yet Ziggy, like his similarly devoted colleagues in the business, soldiers on, traveling to participate in a chicken soup contest (which he wins) and tasting his place’s food even though his doctors advise that it’s not exactly the best thing for his heart and his stamina. In Anjou’s savory film—the third in his trilogy about Jewish culture–Ziggy comes across as a real character, and a real mensch.