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 documentary film produced and directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou; the third work in his trilogy about Jewish culture. The celebrated preceding films are “A Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics - On Holy Ground,” which have to date screened at more than two hundred international film festivals and have been broadcast in the U.S., Israel, Canada and Poland. The principal guide of Deli Man is the effusive and charming Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation delicatessen man, owner and maven (as well as a Yiddish-speaking French trained chef) who currently operates one of the country’s top delis, Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston. Kenny and Ziggy’s has been touted in press reviews ranging from “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” to the L.A. Daily News.
“Texas?” you ask. Shalom, y’all. Because the story of the American deli is the story of Jews – their immigration, migration, upward mobility, and western assimilation. New York may always be the most populous, celebrated and redolent Jewish node. But substantial and influential Jewish tides also flowed from Chicago to Detroit, San Francisco to L.A., and Galveston to Houston and Dallas. How this burgeoning tribe moved and thrived from city to suburb and from suburb to strip mall, and in the process created a legacy and new generations of wealth, is the sunny topside of the Jewish-American journey. The shadowy understory is how that very success engendered the deterioration of the old, traditional urban block and neighborhood – the epic synagogues, Mom and Pop storefronts, and nucleus of Jewish cultural life at which deli was the succulent heart.