Monday, March 02, 2015

Deli Man: Get a Load of that Pastrami

By now, many people do not realize at the time of the Civil War, Jews were largely more accepted by the South than the North. However, there was one Unionist who stood tall against anti-Semitism (Lincoln, of course). Maybe it should therefore not be so surprising one of the one hundred fifty-some surviving real deal kosher delis happens to be in Houston, Texas. Proprietor Ziggy Gruber (formerly of New York) will be our primary guide through the savory traditions of delicatessen cuisine in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s Deli Man (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gruber was born into the delicatessen establishment, as the grandson of the owner of Broadway’s famed Rialto deli. He started working part-time for his beloved grandfather at an early age and absorbed all his traditional recipes and practices like a sponge. He now co-owns and operates Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, one of an estimated 150 legit kosher delis in America. To put things in perspective, there were over 1,500 certified kosher delis in New York City during the 1930s.

Anjou supplies some historical context (pastrami originally came from Romania) and offers some analysis of deli fare as a poignant cultural remnant of a shtetl world that no longer exists, but when you really get down to it, Deli Man is all about the food. The mountainous pastrami sandwiches are as mouth-watering as you would expect, but everything coming out of Gruber’s kitchen looks appetizing. In fact, he whips up some sort of roast shank that could probably justify a trip to Houston by itself.

Anjou could not have cast a more fitting central figure than the effusive Gruber. The man knows deli traditions through and through, yet he treats his staff and customers like family, regardless of their backgrounds. We also meet a representative sampling of other deli men and women, including Jay Parker of Ben’s Best in Rego Park, Queens, which is about as authentic as it gets. However, Anjou only peaks into the personal life of Gruber, who may have finally found someone willing share so much of his time with the corned beef. It is nice to see things working out for him, considering what he has done to keep his family and culinary traditions alive.

Anjou duly observe the irony that it was Jewish Americans’ successful acceptance and assimilation into suburbia that largely drove scores of neighborhood kosher delis like Ben’s Best out of business, without belaboring the point. Indeed, there is some serious substance to the film, but there is no getting around its food porn indulgence—and who would want to? Recommended for those who appreciate culinary cultural history on rye, Deli Man opens this Friday (3/6) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Landmark Sunshine, not so far from Katz’s on Houston Street.