I have to admit right off the bat that I found it really hard focusing on this documentary. It is filled with so much and such great looking deli style food that I became immediately famished and wanted to run right away to Schwartz’s. The documentary is filled with kugel, stuffed veal chops, matzo ball soup, mile high pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, and kreplach. Hunger pangs happened throughout the 91 minutes of the film. Now this is no small feat as I am a vegetarian and deli food is the furthest you can get away from veggie.
The subject of Eric Anjou’s (The Cool Surface) documentary is to give the viewer a rather complete history of the deli in the United States while focusing on one present day New York City deli owner, Ziggy Gruber. Ziggy, whose real name is David, is a third generation deli owner in NYC and has even expanded to Houston, Texas where he co-owns a thriving deli called Kenny & Ziggy’s. Deli is in this man’s blood and he cannot remember ever wanting to do anything else for a living. Despite the fact that he studied haute cuisine in France he still came back to the United States telling his father that he wanted to work at the deli. To say he has a passion for it is an understatement. He loves to speak Yiddish and feels all his ancestors around him as he is cooking.
Through Ziggy’s stories and those of owners of other famous New York delis such as 2nd Avenue and Katz you see that to be a deli owner is to be a little crazy as it overtakes your whole life. There is no such thing as an easy job at a deli. The hours are long and the customers are very demanding. There are also interviews with some famous and loyal deli patrons like Larry King, Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel.
In the United States the traditional deli was one of the Jewish contributions to that country. Everyone loves deli food and for a large part of the 19th century it was big business. Now, business and as such the number of delis has gone down. The film draws a parallel between the decline of the deli and that of Jewish culture in the United States.
The historical context of the deli is interesting. We learn such things as the foods in delis that we associate with Jewish cuisine aren’t really and they are just adaptations of other cultures’ food by Jews. It really illustrates how the Jewish community was built up and relied upon the deli. Immigrants would come from Eastern European countries like Poland, Russia, Hungary, and Romania and these hard workers would open up delis and work their fingers to the bones feeding their community while trying to make a decent living.
Though there are plenty of historical facts that is not the reason you go to a film like this. You go and enjoy it because of the nostalgic and heartwarming way it tells its story. I’m sure after having seen this film you’ll have learned a lot about Jewish culture and the history of delis in the U.S. and you’ll want to run right out and have a corned beef on rye or a pastrami sandwich. Don’t wait because the way that Eric Anjou sees it there won’t be any delis left soon.