It’s not that this documentary about Deli’s is great: It’s not. It’s that it’s delicious.
This is the story of the delicatessen, also of “deli men” men (and women) who have been in the business for generations, and also of a particular Deli Man, Ziggy Gruber, who’s been in the business since he was eight, taking over where his grandfather left off.
The history is rather interesting, and I did not know it: The deli is, like all great food things, an American invention. It was a mash-up of a variety of Jewish traditions from all over Europe, especially Eastern Europe, combined with some old-fashioned American awesomeness. Like the giant sandwich thing. And Sephardic Jews settling in Norte Mexico (Texas!) in the 1500s(!) to escape the Inquisition. (Are flour tortillas just the American version of unleavened bread?) And the “Kosher is great, but maybe a little ham would be nice once in a while?”
Ziggy is a great central character, too: A world class chef, he gave up working in a three-star Michelin restaurant to carry on the tradition and the care he takes making food, and the love he has for his employees, are all just wonderful to see. Even as he struggles with his wait, and his love life (involving a Roman Catholic health-nut acupuncturist).
In between the various bits, we get interviews with deli men all across the country, and learn about their dwindling numbers. From 1,500 kosher delis just in the 5 boroughs of New York in the ‘30s to only about 150 nationwide today.
It’s just fun. And watching them make this food was great. In fact, we knew we were going to get hungry, so we planned a trip to one of our local delis right after. I realized I’d been remiss as a father since neither The Boy nor The Flower had ever been to a deli before.
It was great. It wasn’t cheap, though.
Which brings up part of the problem, I suppose: Deli food is labor intensive and a lot of it is protein-intensive as well, none of which adds up to cheap. Also, as the movie points out, while genuine Italian Bistros are also on the decline, there’s no place for new deli people to come from. (Somehow all the Jews are missing from Eastern Europe. Someone should delve into that mystery.)
Anyway, as I say, it’s not a great documentary, but I got no complaints. It’s not pretentious, and doesn’t try to be more than it is, and comes in at about 90 minutes. And makes you hungry. I always get a sandwich when I go to the deli but this food made me consider trying some of the other dishes. (Ziggy makes some kind of stuffed chop that looks amazing and they never said what it was! OK, that’s a complaint.)
Written and directed by Erik Anjou, whose only other work I know is as the writer of 976-Evil II (a friend of mine had a small role in that), and the writer/director of the 1993 erotic thriller (and weren’t they all?) The Cool Surface. Which itself is most famous for Teri Hatcher going topless. (They’re real. Whether they’re spectacular, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.)
On Blake’s Documentary Scale:
2. Delivery: Good in the details, a little weak overall, maybe. But I’m not sold on that. I liked each aspect of the film, and I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed a film just about Ziggy or just about the history of the deli as much. So, I guess I’m saying: I agree with those who claim it’s somewhat unfocused but I would challenge them to do it better.
3. Slant. Who cares? It’s food. Food is good. People making food are good. People celebrating their heritage with food are the best.
Check it out. But have a nosh handy.