There’s something about the Jewish deli. Every bite into piping hot pastrami and corned beef, kreplach and goulash, is a step back in time. In the 20th century, the gastronomic traditions of Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe combined to create a culinary institution that’s distinctly American.
But with today’s low-calorie food trends, schmaltz-soaked smoked meat sandwiches have fallen out of favor. And young assimilated Jews don’t crave whitefish salad and cabbage soup like their grandparents did. There were once thousands of Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, according to the film, there are only 150 in all of North America.
Erik Greenberg-Anjou’s new documentary Deli Man, which opens today, celebrates the stubborn deli owners keeping the American tradition alive. Its star is the affable and obsessive Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation deliman and owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston. “When I cook, I feel my ancestors around. And that’s what drives me,” he says in the film. “Someone’s gotta take this food and continue it.”
With the rising price of meat, running a deli is a “mental illness,” one owner says, half-jokingly. Gruber even visits an acupuncturist to treat his stress. So why do it? Because, says actor Jerry Stiller in the film, “it’s more than just food. It’s for the soul, for the heart.”