Let's Eat

Tradition bites back


There used to be thousands of kosher delicatessens in the five boroughs of New York. Today, there are close to 140 Jewish delis in the whole of North America. This depressing statistic is the backdrop to Deli Man: a celebratory, affectionate and thought-provoking documentary about the past, present, and possible future of a Jewish-American cultural phenomenon, from the American independent film-maker Erik Greenberg Anjou.

The film is the final part of a trilogy that takes facets of Jewish cultural, ethnic or religious tradition — “cantorial music”, “klezmer music” and now deli — and, says Anjou, “sees to what extent that part of the tradition lives in the past and what part is changing in modernity”.

Adaptation, as has been the story of the Jews throughout most of history, is the key to survival. But how much variation can a tradition sustain before it ceases to be authentically Jewish? And what does authentically Jewish mean?

German Jews opened the first delis on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1850s. They were basic at first, often without seating and offering sandwiches wrapped in brown paper — a far cry from the bustling eateries that, years later, would include sandwiches piled high with pastrami. These “monster sandwiches”, served up at classic delis such as Katz’s and Carnegie, are an expression of American-Jewish success, says Anjou. “What other restaurant is serving a dish like that and going, ‘Yes, we’ve made it. Now sit down and eat’?”

Delis were at their height in the 1930s, when there was one on almost every corner, and several to a block in some neighbourhoods. Today, changing demographics, high rents and rising food prices, among other reasons, are causing their number to dwindle. The delis hardest hit are the kosher stores, says Anjou: “One, because it seems like there’s less of an appetite for Jewish delicatessen in the Orthodox world. Two, because of meat costs.” Kosher menus consist almost entirely of meat; its price has soared in recent years, slashing profits. “The kosher guys have gotten slaughtered. It’s really, really hard to keep the business alive.”

But while Jewish-American delis may not be thriving, the tradition is surviving. The reason Anjou made Deli Man was because of Ziggy Gruber, a rotund restaurateur in his early 40s, who is keeping traditional Yiddish cooking alive at his popular New York-style deli in, of all places, Houston, Texas.

Trained in haute cuisine at Le Cordon Bleau in London, as well as apprenticing at Le Gavroche, Gruber is the film’s charismatic beating heart, and the character that drives the narrative. Anjou didn’t want to do a dry, straightforward account of the history of deli, and it wasn’t until he met Gruber that he found a way in that excited him.

“Ziggy was definitely the lynchpin for saying, ‘I want to investigate this story’,” he says. “Because of what he is doing with his food, because he’s young, his dedication and he has this complete skill set: he’s not only a schmoozer, he’s a chef, a barterer, a great business person, a traditionalist.”

Ziggy, partly because his cooking is a love letter to his beloved immigrant grandparents, is devoted to a kind of old-school culinary tradition that hardly anyone else is doing. Elsewhere, other young deli owners are devising their own ways to perpetuate deli. At Wise Sons in San Francisco, they put traditional ingredients together in unconventional ways, to appeal to a new clientele.

In Toronto, Zane Caplansky drives around in a van promoting his brand of deli with the controversial slogan, “Sometimes you have to Jew it up”. At a time when some Jews in North America are becoming afraid to “announce themselves” because of rising antisemitism, Caplanksy refuses to hide. Some people find him too brash and “quiver” when they watch the film, says Anjou; however, he is a fan.

“What Zane is doing is saying, ‘F*** that. I’m Jewish. I’m proud of being Jewish. I’m going to announce it and celebrate it. I’m going to have fun with it. And I’m going to invite other people actively into that tradition.’ I think that’s a heroic thing.”

There’s no doubt, though, that being Jewish is “becoming more difficult, not easier”, says Anjou. “So I think the film is just one way of looking at your culture and your traditions and saying, ‘Okay, what’s happening to those traditions? What is my personal stake in continuing them?’”

For Ziggy, he says that means cooking Jewish food in the home, telling stories about where his family came from, how the food changed from place to place, and how that food is emblematic of Jewish survival.

“That’s a really important story to tell,” says Anjou. “So to the extent that the film excites that continuity that would be the biggest thing that comes out of this for me.”

Find out more about the JC screening of DeliMan: The Movie and book tickets here

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