About a week ago, my husband and I decided we were finally grown up enough to take ourselves out to a movie (and leave our slightly attitudinal teenager home to watch some sort of awful teen tv series without us). We’d heard from friends about a documentary called Deli Man that was showing at reasonable hours downtown, and it sounded not bad. We found parking at the bookstore next to the theater, ignored most of the threatening new signs about being towed if we didn’t shop the bookstore and get back out within 90 minutes (it was a Sunday evening, and the bookstore was closing early), and walked into a sparsely attended theater.
Which (the sparseness, I mean) was a shame for the theater and everybody who wasn’t there more than it was for us, because Deli Man is terrific.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder what a Cordon Bleu-trained chef is doing in Houston kibbitzing with his customers in a strip mall deli while sweating the details behind the counter and agonizing over the memory of his grandfather’s idyllic but lost gravy recipe as he serves up gargantuan matzah balls, stuffed chops, and sandwiches you need to be a python to get your jaws around. Cue Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Larry King and other New Yawk old-timers, the local Jewish community fans in Houston, and some of the best–and hopefully not last–deli men in the business.
In between the semi-humorous profile of David “Ziggy” Gruber, third-generation deli man and one of the last under 50, plus (of course) all the kibbitzing from family and friends who wonder when and if he’s ever going to be marriage material, you get interviews with the old hands who themselves are sons and grandsons of the original great deli owners.
Sarge’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Stage Deli, Carnegie Deli, Ben’s Best–most of the guys who are still in business and some who aren’t. They’re famous, they’re well-established, they dress nice…they’re still working backbreaking hours themselves and pushing their kids to get out and go to law school or into engineering because it’s such a hands-on business and training juniors with the right attitude is so difficult. And attitude is what counts.
David Sax (Save the Deli), Jane Ziegelman (97 Orchard) and Michael Wex (Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu) trace the roots of the deli through the waves of Jewish immigration on the Lower East Side, the move to Jewish-style as opposed to kosher, and the decline in our times of a great old-neighborhood tradition as the old urban neighborhoods changed hands and Jews struck out for the suburbs.
You get a chillingly clear picture of why the number of Jewish delis has shrunk from thousands in New York alone after WWII to only about 150 nationwide today. At the same time you see why the deli guys hang in there–and so do their customers.
Jewish delis, kosher or not, are not the usual kind of American casual restaurant. They’re extremely personal and familial, as Jews still tend to be with each other. The old-style Jewish waiters would argue a lot; sometimes they’d tell you rather than ask what you were going to eat, and it became a classic shtick. But as Gruber pointed out on Alan Colmes’ Fox News Radio interview (and no, I can’t believe I’m providing a link to anything Fox either, but it was a good interview), the days of the cranky waiter are more or less gone.
And on the other hand, delis still deliver more for the money than the nouveau-hip places with $50 plates and $18 drinkies. The regular customers expect more–not necessarily more food (though that’s an impression you might get from the outsized portions), but for the deli owners and waiters to know them, talk with them, argue even–and remember exactly how they like their food.
We come from a culture that thrives on argument as a form of intimacy. If you’re not arguing (lightly, not nastily) with your wife, husband, kids, friends, shul members, and pretty much everyone else you care about…how can they be sure you’re really paying attention? It’s become a lost art, though–even Jews of my generation cringe when we hear our parents bellowing cheerfully up and down the stairs at each other. I had to train my genteelly brought up husband that there’s a huge difference between yelling out to him from the far end of the house and yelling at him, and I expected him to just yell back the answer and not get mad or insulted. He’s almost got it by now…
That kind of personal is what makes the give and take between kvetchy customers and ebullient owners work so well and it adds ta’am, flavor, to the whole experience of going to a deli. They know you, and they pay attention whether you’re a CEO or an average Joe. You can’t get that in a chain restaurant; you don’t get it at a three-star haute palace.
Delis have also, at their best, been the kinds of places where seemingly hard-nosed owners were known to sustain their neighborhoods in hard times, sometimes secretly comping a free meal if a customer was out of work.
Deli Man is deliberately and intelligently personal even as it traces the history, the economics, the fans among the Broadway stars, and the paradoxical Americanness of the Jewish deli. There are plenty of old black-and-white vintage photos, a bittersweet tour of the Lower East Side and its remnants, and klezmer music from one of the modern greats. Far from becoming a Ken Burns wannabe, though, it’s funny, wry, well-paced, modern–and most of all, it gets to the heart of what makes a deli matter. From start to finish, this is a documentary that cuts the mustard. In fact, my only serious kvetch is this: too much pastrami, not enough corned beef.
Or pickles. So in honor of this movie I’m trying out a long-planned jar of pickled green tomatoes, something I remember with fondness and bemusement from my childhood. Whenever my grandparents would come down to Virginia to visit us, they’d schlep bags stuffed with good tough breads, real bagels, packets of corned beef and pastrami. Along with precariously packed containers–were they plastic tubs, or were they, as I remember, merely stapled glassine Continue reading
Filed under: cooking, Eating out, history, holiday cooking, movies, sauces and condiments, Vegetabalia | Tagged: Deli Man, food, Jewish delis, Kenny and Ziggy's, Lorin Sklamberg, movie reviews | Leave a comment »