Deli As It Once Was

As the industry gathers in Atlanta for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association Annual Convention and Exposition, it can expect to see a truly extraordinary sight. After all, in those halls we will see an assortment of foods gathered from the far corners of the globe, we will see the miracle of how modern processing and packaging combines with contemporary transportation and storage techniques to create what is truly an exception in the annals of time — delicious, safe and plentiful food, most of which is affordable to the vast bulk of the nation’s citizenry.

Yet as we as an industry justifiably take pride in these achievements, perhaps there is still a place for all to tip our collective hats to those who have gone before. There is no better way to do this than to catch a screening of Deli Man — the Movie, identified as “A freshly made documentary by Erik Greenberg Anjou.” Here is how the producers describe the movie:

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.

One of the more poignant moments in the movie is when Ziggy Gruber and his father walk through the lower East side of Manhattan and observe the loss of Jewish culture. In 1931, there were 1,500 kosher delis in the five boroughs of New York, many more were Kosher-style or were in the suburbs. Today, in the whole country there are probably not even 200 kosher delis.

Ziggy, an exceptional human being who somehow channels the agony and ecstasy of a people, is driven to preserve the culture by preserving the food. Yet while Ziggy laments the loss, his father says there is nothing to be sad about. Everything has its moment.

Jewish deli is unlike other immigrant foods. The Italians and Chinese, the Mexicans and Indians… their cuisine is reinvigorated in each generation as new immigrants come, bringing recipes and a willingness to work hard. Yet the Jewish deli draws on a culture that perished in the crematoria of Auschwitz. It survives, if it is to survive at all, only by the willingness and ability of people already here to remember their roots and reinvigorate their own culture and cuisine.

The movie ends with Ziggy Gruber getting married at the great synagogue in Budapest where his grandfather had his Bar Mitzvah. It is a grand gesture to tie the future, his family, his children yet unborn, to the past he so loves, the Yiddish culture of his grandparents.

There is a movement to recreate Jewish delis, to make it sustainable, ethical, low fat and more. Perhaps they will succeed in recreating an old cuisine for the modern world.

Succeed or fail, the contemporary supermarket deli/foodservice outlet has its roots in the Kosher delicatessen that once was on every urban corner, long before Starbucks was dreamt of.

The methodical reach from Kosher, to kosher style, to just a deli, a step-by-step effort to make everyone a customer, culminates at the assortment we will all see in Atlanta. So as we walk, maybe we can give a silent toast for time gone by and hopes for the future. To life, to life, L’Chaim.