Knows from Chopped Liver
3 & ½ popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Warning! Do not see director Erik Greenberg Anjou’s mouthwateringly delicious documentary, “Deli Man,” without planning to immediately follow it up with a visit to your favorite Jewish delicatessen. Failing to do so would surely be far more injurious to your health and wellbeing than the artery clogging ecstasies you will therein imbibe. Make it a theme day…like the film, a glorious celebration of a cultural tradition that came to thrive in the New World. Now faced with changing realities, it is proudly championed by a dying breed.
Point of disclosure: When my great, great, great, great, great grandfather Ichabod Goldberger came over on the Mayflower, he didn’t think to change his last name. After all, this is America. Thus, inviting the inference, yes, I know from chopped liver. When in a reverie, holiday-inspired or not, the visions in my head are not of sugar plums dancing, but rather of big pastrami sandwiches on rye, a kasha knish, potato salad and a Dr. Brown’s cherry soda. Oh, and a pickle.
Thus the biggest challenge in writing this review is to check my subjectivity at the shtetl door and adjust for the ebullience that comes of witnessing an artistic work that so ennobles one’s pride and ethnocentrism. Unlike adwoman Judy Protas’s famous slogan, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish Rye,” in this case it couldn’t hurt. While the documentary is smartly written and stylishly edited, its larger appeal will depend on one’s ability to relate to their own culture the heartwarming connections among food, ethos and making a living.
Unfortunate but corroborating, shortly after viewing “Deli Man” I read of the fire that consumed the landmark Harris Diner in East Orange, N.J. The eighty-year-old proprietor, a Greek-American, spoke glowingly of his dedication to the institution that was his very being. He embodied an alike devotion…a raison d’être made of spices, herbs and that key ingredient, love.
Truth is, as Harry Golden so aptly titled his book about the Jewish experience, this food phenomenon was possible “Only in America.” Sure, there were and are delis in Europe, but nowhere like in the entrepreneurial U.S. of A. has it so flourished…our huddled masses yearning to cook matzo ball soup, beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to make as many pastrami sandwiches as one could sell. And if you want to eat it on white with mayo, G-d forbid, it’s a free country. The film is as much an homage to American opportunity as it is to deli men.
While Mr. Anjou’s adulating audit visits and confers with several famed deli owners across the country, the title for all intents and purposes refers to David “Ziggy” Gruber, proud proprietor of the much heralded Kenny and Ziggy’s, Houston, Texas. Second generation American and third generation deli man, raised to the calling, literally, at his Hungarian-Jewish grandfather’s New York City delicatessen, the sweet but driven, panda of a man is the self-appointed perpetuator of the gustatory world from which he emanates…the Charlemagne of the smoked meat faithful.
A graduate of London’s Le Cordon Bleu, Ziggy’s bravado is mixed with a winning sense of mission and honor, his passion for preserving the gastronomy his much beloved grandfather pioneered equaled only by his encyclopedic knowledge of the craft. So it only makes sense that director Anjou makes him the iconic anchor of his romantic idealization. This includes interweaving the deli man’s culinary crusade with his wooing of Houston acupuncturist Mary McCaughey…a courtship long pined for by well-wishing family and friends. I rooted for him.
The eclectic mixture of celebrities and scholars interviewed strikes a narrative blend of effusive schmaltz and sociocultural erudition, essentially the philosophical and intellectual equivalent of an overstuffed, mile-high pastrami/corned beef combo, and almost as satisfying. Jerry Stiller and Yiddish theater legend Fyvush Finkel are among those who season the scenario with affectionate comic anecdotes, while noted scholars trace the roots and evolution of director Anjou’s cause célèbre.
The ominous note struck early on, a clarion call for preservation of an endangered bill of fare, informs that in the mid-1930s there were 1,500 Jewish delicatessens in New York alone. Today, there are about 150 total in the U.S. Explaining the demographic and financial causes of that stark fact, a distinguishedly dapper proprietor of a famed Manhattan delicatessen lamentingly elaborates: “You can’t run this like a McDonald’s.” Indeed, it’s too labor intensive, and with meat comprising 99% of the menu, ever-rising prices are making authentic deli a luxury.
Like the aforementioned sandwich that has you savoring each and every bite, delighting in the juicy nuances and complementing flavors that devilishly whisper, “The heck with the calories,” you don’t want this tastefully informative love affair with Jewish comfort food to end. But alas, now it’s your chance, nay, your sacred duty, to stave off extinction of a tradition by visiting the local “Deli Man” and gathering your pastrami on rye, coleslaw and pickle while ye may.
“Deli Man,” rated PG-13, is a Cohen Media Group release directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou and stars Ziggy Gruber, Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel. Running time: 91 minutes