Delicatessen restaurants, as we know and love them, are going extinct (Hell, even NPR wrote a story that says, as Linguists claim, New York accents are disappearing altogether). Diminishing returns in sales, health-conscious dieting, and a number of other factors play into the heartbreaking fact that most deli-diners are going the way of the dodo.
Fortunately, there are still enough passionate food lovers, and moreover, people of the Yiddish culture (however slowly homogenizing), that keep the savory meals and experience alive and well (and arguably, more spirited than ever). Deli Man, a documentary that dives into the food’s earliest origins and historical surroundings up through its present-day state, is a passionately made film that examines every corner of this food’s story and plate in telling this joyous tale.
The titular “Deli Man” and heart of this doc’s underlying story is Ziggy Gruber, a New York transplant owning and operating his very own delicatessen, Kenny and Ziggy’s– in Houston, Texas. The seemingly odd locale for the Yiddish-speaking deli-devout is only at first confusing, until the story is explained in its wider scope.
Deli Man celebrates the best of its subject with the utmost joy, leading this reviewer to re-affirm his own love for the food, a time gone-by, and the people who’s passion for it all continue to satisfy our never-ending orders.
With familial origins rooted firmly in deli culture’s World-War I-era history, we see Ziggy’s story begin even before his birth. His grandfather and best friend, having owned the famous Rialto Delicatessen on Broadway (and where our portly protagonist began stuffing cabbages at the age of eight) inspires Ziggy’s love and taking to culinary school, leading him to train in London before relocating to Houston, where it’s shown that an unexpectedly large Jewish population live along the Southern states, and where delis are more scarce than ever. Ziggy himself is a hilarious character in his own story, channeling classic old-world Jewish cliches that make his loveable persona leap off the screen, into your heart.
As a documentary solely about the glory that is deli food, Deli Man will undoubtedly play best to its already passionate culture and audience– one already warmed to the savors of stacked-to-the-ceiling hot pastrami on rye, with the cool crunch of pickle to bring the “mmm’s” home. There’s certainly no shortage of foodie-loving footage, serving as the film’s most savory and mouth-watering moments. But like the decked out and filled-to-capacity meals themselves, this documentary is also jam-packed with every angle of facts and footage surrounding pastrami and its culture, at once impressive, but also leaving for a bit of bloat that, at a solid hour and a half, makes for a filling experience.
Deli Man is charming, funny, and wonderfully entertaining in its impressive scope to tell this food’s rich story, which works best when Ziggy and an array of famous deli eaters (including Larry King and Jerry Stiller) wax philosophic on how deli food is more than just that: it’s a spirit, they say. A feeling, and something special in its nostalgia, significant and symbolic of this great immigrant nation, which falls further into the past with each passing day. Deli Man celebrates the best of its subject with the utmost joy, leading this reviewer to re-affirm his own love for the food, a time gone-by, and the people whose passion for it all continue to satisfy our never-ending orders.
Deli Man is in theaters this Friday