Read two critical perspectives on Deli Man (Erik Greenberg Anjou, 2014), by Barry Caine and Matt Mahurin. Deli Man opens Friday, March 6 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, and Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol.
DELI MAN: Tasty and Addictive—Don’t Forget the Schmaltz
by Barry Caine
Feed me now. Lead me through the temptation of rye bread sandwiches so thick with pastrami and corned beef you have to unhinge your jaw to take a bite. Deliver me to mounds of chopped liver, barrels of crunchy dill pickles, and mountains of potato pancakes bathed in sour cream and applesauce.
After watching the documentary Deli Man , I have needs: for matzo ball soup, whitefish, brisket of beef, and the seductive aromas of my childhood. Today it’s comfort food for anyone raised in a Jewish household, or simply a deli aficionado. (Full disclosure: I am both.) Sure it’s fattening but, as Deli Man demonstrates, it’s tasty, addictive and part of a deeply seated tradition. Tradition!
The picture celebrates that tradition in ways both witty and wistful. Opening Friday in the Bay Area, Deli Man unfolds like a tour of Jewish delicatessens, old and new, spiced with glimpses into the history of Jews, Jewish food and culture in America. The primary guides are second- and third-generation deli owners, all chatty and charismatic, as well as a few authors and celebrity deli fanatics such as Jerry Stiller and Larry King. Producer-director Erik Greenberg Anjou worked on the movie for three years, and it radiates his affection for Kosher and Kosher-style delis. His use of a klezmer-inspired soundtrack ranging from “Gefilte Fish” to “Deep in the Heart of Texas” provides a lively accompaniment.
His samplings of delicatessen shtick add to the fun. For instance, almost everyone in the picture agrees that deli regulars are among the finickiest eaters in America. In an apocryphal illustration, a deli man serves matzo ball soup to an elderly Jewish woman, one of his regulars. She says, “It’s too salty.” He says, “Did you taste it?” She says, “No. But it looks too salty.”
Rim shot! Please.
For decades, delis have provided a sense of community for Jews, a fact that these deli men (and one woman) aim to continue along with other deli traditions. Running a Jewish delicatessen is a hard-knock life, they say. Not that they’re kvetching . (One of the Yiddish words adding zing to the picture, it means “complaining.”) They convincingly proclaim their love for the work—days can run 18 to 20 hours—the food, the customers and, naturally, the tradition.
German immigrants established the first delicatessens in America in the 1840s. A few decades later, these inspired the newer Jewish immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, to open the first Kosher delis as a means of providing for their families. According to Deli Man data, thousands of Jewish delis blanketed New York City alone in 1931. Today, maybe 150 exist. Rising costs of meat, rent, utilities and life in general act as villains. The handful of venerable survivors includes the Stage, Carnegie, Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli and Ben’s Best in New York and Canter’s in Los Angeles. Among the new kids on the block, inspired by and expanding upon the deli legacy are Wise Sons in San Francisco (whose Mission Street baking operation and office were recently destroyed in a fire) and Caplansky’s in Toronto, where servers wear T-shirts emblazoned with “Bad News Jews.” Deli Man visits each, along with a handful of other top delicatessens.
The film’s affable centerpiece, though, is David “Ziggy” Gruber, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in London, chef and owner of Kenny and Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, Texas, and a third-generation deli man (his grandfather ran the iconic Rialto in New York City). The movie follows the usually stressed Gruber as he cooks, works the counter, schmoozes with customers, staff, relatives and other deli men, and talks Jewish history, a passion along with his popular restaurant.
One of his tastiest tidbits: More Jews lived in the South than in the North during the Civil War and there were more Jewish generals in the Confederacy than in the Union. (Never read that in a textbook.)
The life-with-Ziggy segments occasionally overwhelm, interrupting the flow and distracting from the narration. It’s great that Gruber eventually takes his potbelly to the gym, but, honestly, other than his friends, who cares? And yet he fits perfectly into talk-show host King’s definition of the quintessential deli man: “Hands-on … makes good food, prepares it well, but above all else is a mensch (a man of integrity).”
Being a good storyteller seems like part of the job, too. “One of the great urban myths (a Jewish joke),” Gruber says, “is that flour tortillas were invented as unleavened bread for Passover.” He doesn’t forget the schmaltz—clarified chicken or goose fat regularly used in Kosher and Kosher-style deli cooking, for frying, as a spread, and as a little flavor enhancer for Deli Man . It also serves as a reminder that you don’t go to Jewish delis to get slim, you go to revel in the food and its aromas. Let’s eat!
Barry Caine has been a movie critic for the Oakland Tribune and an entertainment editor for the Contra Costa Times. He is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
by Johnny Ray Huston and Matt Mahurin
When I first noticed Erik Greenberg Anjou’s movie Deli Man , my mind raced to one of my favorite documentaries of this young century, Matt Mahurin’s I Like Killing Flies . In essence a portrait of Kenny Shopsin and his restaurant Shopsin’s in New York, I Like Killing Flies opens up into a discourse about food, work, family, politics, and the stuff of life. Based on his own experiences on the deli-doc frontline, I suspected that Mahurin might have an affinity for Deli Man , so I interviewed him for his take on the movie. (JRH)
EatDrinkFilms: Did you know about Deli Man before I contacted you about watching it?
Matt Mahurin: No, I didn’t. I’m in a bit of a bubble working on my own projects. When I was watching it I drew a lot of comparisons to my own experiences following a passionate, eccentric, very hardworking person on their quest, and all the things that it brought. It reminded me of that experience.
EDF: The movies definitely have some similarities in their subject matter and chief characters.
MM: They’re similar right from the opening scene where Ziggy has everyone unloading things and is checking to make sure everything is in order for the day. Kenny [Shopsin, in I Like Killing Flies ] is sort of a one-man band for the most part. Kenny was doing all those things that Ziggy [Gruber, in Deli Man ] is delegating. Both have a devotion and commitment to quality from the ground up. From the moment something came in the door [of Shopsin’s], Kenny was responsible for it.
What I really liked about Deli Man was the emphasis on cultural and historical power, and the personal commitment and sense of family. Even in my movie, the whole place is run by Kenny and his wife and a couple of kids. Ziggy just has a bigger family, but it really is the same. Ziggy and Kenny are very similar in terms of how driven they are. I can’t say their motivations are totally in sync, though. They’re one-of-a-kind characters.
EDF: One thing that both films bring across in individual ways is the cultural importance of delis, as urban landscapes in the U.S. are becoming increasingly expensive and generic.
MM: I loved all of Deli Man ’s historical references. It deals with the disintegration of that historical connection and how many delis there were – a tremendous amount more than there are today. In I Like Killing Flies , there’s a similar theme. Kenny was trying to survive and was driven out of his own neighborhood and had to shift and change with the times. That struggle to maintain your individuality and uniqueness and sense of one’s own connection to a neighborhood and community, it’s almost becoming a dying art because everything is so manufactured and branded. But Kenny is still up and going – my wife just visited his restaurant in New York, and now his son is doing the cooking with him. That struggle is still there and it’s still being passed on. The same thing probably happened with cobblers and blacksmiths and handymen—the sort of small person on the corner you can rely on.
It’s nice how Deli Man brings in all the other deli owners. You can see how they are all very different people, but there are all these connections through family and through culture – and tremendous pride. That was a consistent theme. The sandwiches are overflowing with meat. These guys have an abundance of pride – giant heapings of it. They’re trying to preserve history. It was great to hear so many people talking about their parents and the work ethic. I love to work, and it’s one of the reasons I made the movie with Kenny. We had a lot of the same strengths in terms of work ethic, and a lot of the same crossed wires in terms of needing to be your own person rather than function in a corporate place. These guys [in Deli Man and in delis overall] are trying to maintain their individuality in the face of a paper-thin profit margin. These delis are a bonding agent in terms of community.
EDF: No matter how gruff or caustic the exterior, there’s a strong love behind this work ethic.
MM: Oh, absolutely. These guys [in Deli Man ] will not give up. They go in every day and they put on their apron, turn on the meat slicer, turn up the flames and get to it. I love that spirit. They talk with such reverence about their mothers and fathers. And these people [running delis today] are having to work equally hard if not harder in the face of the fact that the tradition is fading. They have to preserve the quality and heritage and philosophy behind the whole thing. They are just as worthy of respect – it’s a joy watching these guys work their asses off. I love watching these people just bust their butts. I really related to that in Kenny.
It reminded me of a Japanese restaurant that I’d go to in New York. To be able to go in and sit down at a table – I was living 3000 miles away from home— and have the people cooking the food know my name; it was like going to my own kitchen and sitting down at the dining room table. In Deli Man , Ziggy is very caring. I love the way he relates to his staff and that he embraces the power of his role in their lives. He isn’t just their employer, he’s responsible for these people earning a living. That aspect was touching.
Whether it’s Ziggy [in Deli Man ], or Kenny showing up for work by himself and turning on the refrigerator, it’s the same dynamic. There’s no difference between them when it comes to that love—that passionate commitment is the same at the core. For any person that passionate, stuff can get away from you. Hard work can be calming. If I were to sit around idly and concern myself with shortcomings, that could drive me nuts—having work and purpose can ease your anxiety. It supplies a sense of purpose.
But you could also see how it takes a toll. I liked how Deli Man shows Ziggy going to the acupuncturist and to the gym. He’s trying to get some balance to his life, but in the end he wants to make some more matzo balls. In the film you get a feel for the proportionality – that the one trip to the acupuncturist and to the gym is the percentage it probably takes up in his life: Nice try, back to the kitchen. I found that to be quite telling: Here’s the scene where he’s got to try and get healthy.
EDF: There’s a strong oral tradition – verbal wit and spontaneity – in both movies that seems to be vanishing from urban life today. Was that part of what first inspired you to make I Like Killing Flies?
MM: My motivation was what what Kenny had to say when I would go in as a customer. In between cooking things, he‘d come out from behind the Frankenstein stove, and along with the food he’d offer up all these morsels of wisdom. He‘s feeding people wisdom about everything from politics to sex to New York City to food. He would hold court. I thought the struggles and victories he had transcended this bohemian enclave in Greenwich Village. I just wanted to share his struggle and quest to heal himself and connect and have a purpose. That was the reason I made it. From a technical point of view, it was an exercise to see if Final Cut Pro could work. It turned into a Sundance film and all of that was completely unexpected.
In Deli Man , you also see people gathering, and how food can be a conduit to connection and community and people showing caring for each other. There’s also a historical element that’s very touching and informative. The vintage photographs give a whole other layer to this character study.
Ziggy was the perfect person to present as a main character. It’s one thing to show a bunch of still photographs of old New York and Chicago lunch counters with guys wearing aprons in front of their establishments. But to have this person who is sort of an old soul in a way – he is the perfect person to breathe life into that history. He’s still so young. He could be doing this another 30 or 40 years. It’s great seeing a young person so connected to history, because history seems so disposable today, with everyone in the here-and-now moving forward and texting. Having someone wanting to reach back was comforting, and a hopeful thing to see. Ziggy has such respect for history and his relatives, too, and what they’ve brought to his sense of purpose. He’s very clear on where his purpose and passion came from, and how it was instilled in him, and it really translates into the way he runs his place. I felt that was very endearing and compelling.
In Deli Man , the filmmaker’s commitment to the project – traveling to all these places and shooting – is fantastic. They really have my respect for schlepping all the way to Hungary to film [Ziggy’s] wedding. My wife and I were starving by the end of the movie. I should have known better! The posters for my film said, “Come hungry.”
Matt Mahurin has worked for over thirty years as an illustrator, photographer, film director and teacher. He’s created political and social illustrations for Time, Newsweek, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The London Observer and The New York Times, and his photographs are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He’s directed music videos for Peter Gabriel, U2, Tom Waits, REM, Tracy Chapman, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Ice-T, Metallica, David Byrne, and Joni Mitchell. His documentary I Like Killing Flies was selected for the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. His other feature films are Mugshot (1996) and FEEL (2010). He lives in California. www.mattmahurin.com.