For some, delicatessen food is close to a religious experience. A tender, crumbling cut of corned beef steeped in its juices. A full-bodied garlic dill pickle.
Spicy brown mustard with grain. A blintz that melts in your mouth like a creamsicle on a summer’s day. Recipes and culinary garnishes from Hungary, Poland, Russia, Romania that flowed into late 19th and early 20th century America and soon became part of an American culinary and cultural vernacular – Deli.
Deli Man is a delectable documentary that reflects the heart of a vital ethnic history – the Jewish delicatessen – that, while almost decimated in 21st century fitness-crazed, suburban-sprawled and assimilated Jewish America, still remains the virtual epicenter not only of food, but of family, laughter and community. Produced and directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou, Deli Man is set to begin serving around the country on February 27, 2015.
Every story needs a brave and trustworthy guide, and Deli Man’s is the effusive and charming Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation delicatessen man – his uncle and great-uncle owned Berger’s in the diamond district, and the Woodrow Deli on Long Island. His grandfather owned the famous Rialto Delicatessen on Broadway, and Ziggy was stuffing cabbages atop of a crate when he was eight. Now he is owner and maven (as well as a Yiddish-speaking French trained chef) of one of the country’s top delis, Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston – yes, Texas…Shalom y’all.
Of course the story of deli isn’t Ziggy’s alone. Deli Man has visited meccas like the Carnegie, Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Nate ‘n Al, and Canter’s, as well as interviewed some of the great connoisseurs of deli, including Jerry Stiller, Alan Dershowitz, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker (Ben’s Best), Fyvush Finkel, and Larry King.
“That was a different time,” Gruber says with a sigh. “It has been a process of attrition.” He attributes the disappearance of the deli to numerous factors. The demographic shifts in the Jewish population have certainly affected the location of the restaurants, but one of the prime culprits, ironically, has been the success with which Jewish-Americans have become a part of the mainstream culture. The changing understanding of what constitutes “healthy” eating has hurt the delicatessen world, but the passage of time is an underrated factor. “Most of the delis are owned by older people,” Gruber says. He’s a fourth-generation deli man himself. “It is a family-driven business.”
He adds, “Overheads keep going up, too. Food prices have risen at least 30 percent every single year in the last three years.” The deli faces some obstacles that don’t have the same impact on purveyors of other cuisines.” There’s a shortage of pastrami and brisket,” Gruber says. “We’ve had a serious problem with drought and there has been a lack of cattle production. The cattle market has changed, with the U.S. exporting 30 to 40 percent of its beef to Asia. It’s ending up as shabu-shabu instead of pastrami.”
But if you push your kids to become doctors and lawyers, they won’t want or need to work the 90-hour week of a restaurateur. Economic realities have worked against the deli, too, he notes. “Rents go up and if you don’t own your own real estate, that will kill you,” Gruber says. “And it’s expensive to build a new deli from scratch; you’re looking at $1.5 million, $2 million, maybe even more.”
Although the subject of his work ranges from Ivy League football to abstract expressionist painting, Erik has a particular passion for Jewish and Israeli-driven content. Two previous feature-length documentaries he has produced and directed – “A Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground” – are about sacred music and klezmer music. They have screened at more than two hundred international film festivals and have captured top festival prizes in Tel Aviv, Warsaw, Miami, San Diego and Washington, D.C.
As a screenwriter, his most recent endeavor is “You Shall Not Kill” adapted from a novel by Uri Oren. The film is being Co-Produced by Thomas Schühly (“Alexander”) and Rony Yacov (“Picking Up The Pieces”). Erik is the Writer-Director of the upcoming “La Fatura” (The Favor), Produced by Stephen Greenwald, Executive Produced by Fred Zollo. He is adapting Warren Adler’s novel, “Residue,” for Grey Eagle Films. And just to make sure he stays busy, Erik teaches film as an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.
Gruber is optimistic about the future of the deli. “Just because things are different doesn’t mean there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “You have to be innovative, you have to appeal to a multigenerational clientele. If you run the business right, you will prosper.”