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 bags of half-sour kosher dill pickles, with traces of brine and garlic bits sloshing around in them? You’d never be allowed to carry that on an airplane these days. And tucked into the brown-paper shopping bags another container of similarly pickled unripe tomatoes, an older, less-well-known classic with no equivalent in my mainstream suburban childhood.
Nu–I’ve just sterilized a jar and picked a pound of still-green small tomatoes out of the bins at my local Armenian greengrocer’s for this, so wish me luck (loose recipe at the bottom of the post).
So, the last question or two is, how did this documentary come about, and how are they doing so far? Deli Man is the third in a series of documentaries on Jewish culture by director Erik Greenberg Anjou. He met Gruber in Houston when Gruber’s deli, Kenny & Ziggy’s, sponsored a screening of one of the earlier films. He immediately decided Gruber’s story had to be next. Anjou and his crew funded Deli Man with a Kickstarter campaign that asked for a mere $54,000 and got it pretty quickly. I’d guess they must have had other funding too because the production values are professionally high and they cover more than ten locations, but there are just four crew members including Anjou himself. In any case, in just under a month of theater openings, they’ve cleared more than $300,000, which is pretty promising, and with luck it’ll continue to pick up steam.
So nu, that’s more or less it. I’m done hocking and I’m not giving away any more surprises about the movie and the character arc, you’re just gonna have to see it for yourself to find out what happens with Mr. Gruber. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Instead, I’m going to skip ahead to the credits, because they contained a personal surprise for me: Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics (and sound archivist for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) does the music. He has collaborated with musicians from Itzhak Perlman to Emmylou Harris and is very good indeed.
His role in this film was particularly poignant because his mother Libby, a member of my old shul, was a pistol, and we still miss her. She was a dedicated theater maven, impressively and improbably up to date on pop music and the fate of every amateur contestant on the X-Factor, always enthusiastic and a great builder of ties among different groups in our local Jewish community. She would have been delighted–though not surprised–to see what her son has lent his talents to this time around, and I have no doubt that if she were still here, theater showings around the country for Deli Man would be as packed as this jar…
Pickled Green Tomatoes (one quart or liter mason jar)
- 1-liter mason jar with lid and collar
- 2-3 cups smallish unripened, preferably completely green tomatoes (I waited a couple of days too long and some started developing color), very firm and unblemished
- 1 l water
- 2-3 T kosher salt
- 1-2 T white (distilled) vinegar
- handful of fresh dill
- 2-3 medium-large garlic cloves
- 1/2 t (10-20) whole black peppercorns
- 1/2 t (10-20) whole coriander seeds
Wash the mason jar and lid parts well, then stand them in a big pot or metal bowl and pour boiling water over and in them to sterilize. Let stand a bit, then carefully (with a rubber glove or potholders) pour out the water from the jar and let air-dry on clean toweling or tilted upside down in the bowl.
Boil the liter of water and add salt, stir to dissolve, then add the vinegar and cool (I stuck the saucepan into a large bowl with icewater for 10-20 minutes). Meanwhile, wash the tomatoes well, rinse thoroughly and let them dry in a colander. Wash the dill and put it with the peppercorns and coriander seeds in the bottom of the mason jar. Peel and cut the garlic cloves in halves and put them in too.
Cut each tomato in halves or quarters, depending on how big they are–you want pieces that are 1 inch thick or so, so for green Roma or medium round tomatoes you’d want quarters; for large cherry tomatoes just cut them in half. Place the tomatoes in the jar with the dill and spices, using a spoon to help push them into any empty spaces. Pour the cooled brine over them, tapping the jar gently on the counter every so often to bring up any hidden air bubbles, and fill to the rim. Put the lid and collar on tightly, turn the jar over and back a couple of times to make sure the brine gets everywhere (inside the jar, I mean–hopefully no major leaks!) and store the jar in a cool darkish spot on the kitchen counter for 2-3 days to ferment (some bubbles should form at the top). Then store in the fridge and use within a week or so–half-sour dill-style pickles, whether tomato or cucumber, don’t store on the shelf and they don’t last quite as long as the standard boiled-in-vinegar-and-tons-of-salt type. On the plus side, they’re fresher-tasting and crunchier, and more about the dill and garlic.
And yeah, I know; a liter of pickled tomatoes is kind of a lot to use within a week except if you’ve got a largeish household or a party to bring them to. So just do a pint jar with half the amounts of brine and so on if that makes you feel better. Or turn the excess pickled green tomatoes into the base for a green tomatillo-style salsa.
B’te’avon–eat nice! And happy Pesach (or Easter weekend) next Friday!