Film: Deli Man (2015)

I listen to a lot of food podcasts. I started a few years ago, when there was a period in my life when I lived in a food desert, trapped in a part of Omaha with no nearby grocery store, trying to put together a decent meal from whatever I could buy from a gas station/bodega I passed on my way walking home from work.

I felt a bit like one of the subjects of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, in which a group of conscientious objectors allowed themselves to be malnourished during World War II. Several of the men became obsessed with cookbooks, and afterwards became chefs. I had long had an interest in good food -- I am a former resident of New Orleans, after all -- but now this interest turned obsessive.

So on my way to and from work, passing that little gas station/bodega, I listened to food podcasts and dreamed of a day when I would live close enough to a good grocery store to be able to make proper meals. Last year, a particular movie came out, and the filmmakers or the subjects of the film made the rounds of these podcasts.

The film was "Deli Man," in which filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou documents the decline of the Jewish deli, as well as focusing on Ziggy Gruber, a bearlike fellow who owns and runs the acclaimed Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston. Gruber is a fascinating character, a relatively young man who has the bearing and mannerisms of a 90-year-old Jewish man. He was trained in fine dining, but came from two generations of New York deli men, and has an obsessive love of the subject.

It is, the film acknowledges, a bad time for delis. In New York, the number of delicatessens has dwindled from 1,550 in 1931 to just 21 today. The deli owners in the film complain of a myriad of business problems, chief among them the fact that their clientele has largely either died or moved to Florida, coupled with the fact that they primarily serve meat, which has become prohibitively expensive. To Gruber, delis are an essential link with the past, with the history of Jewish immigration to the United States, which the film documents. But increasingly it seems like delis may also be a remnant of the past, struggling to survive with a diminishing base of very old, very particular Jews who insist on still eating the same food they enjoyed in the mid-20th century.

I am sympathetic to Gruber's passion. Delicatessens are not just an aspect of Jewish-American life, they are one of the defining aspects. I grew up near a deli in Minneapolis, the Lincoln Del, and New York delicatessens were an essential part of my regular trips to New York to visit family. I was a patron of Los Angeles delis for the years I lived in Los Angeles, and even here in Omaha, where there isn't a proper Jewish deli, I regularly make myself delicatessen-style food. As I've written elsewhere, I think that the deli served the same place for the American Jew as the Irish pub served for the Irish-American, and I don't know what fulfills that function now that the deli is in decline.

At the same time, it's hard not to struggle with the fact that delis are so stubbornly conservative, as though some idealized, perfect deli occurred in 1937 and that's how it should always be done. The film points out that deli food isn't actually the food of Eastern European immigrants. It is, instead, a hybrid, having started as a German innovation, absorbing a surprisingly large Romanian influence, and allowing itself to be Americanized. The heart attack-inducing, meat-based meals of early delis were a product of a specific American time, one in which meat was cheap and plentiful and had grown to dominate the American diet.

This certainly doesn't represent the diet of European Jews, which, thanks to poverty and dietary restrictions, including a lot of dishes in which veggies or milk dominated. In fact, there was a parallel development to the American deli called the milkhik restaurant that elusively focused on milk dishes. One of New York's most famous Jewish restaurants, Ratner's, was milkhik, and their menus demonstrate the extraordinary variety of meatless dishes possible in Jewish dining, including blintzes, potato pancakes, borsht, and kreplackh. (It should be noted that these restaurants also served a lot of fish, which is not considered meat in Jewish law.)

So it is possible to re-conceive deli cooking without so much emphasis on the budget-busing meats. This is the deli food I have known most of my life, as I have been a vegetarian since I was 16, and I have never lacked for dining options when eating at Jewish venues. 

That being said, it is hard not to watch "Deli Man" without thinking, you know, when I go into a deli, maybe I should suspend the vegetarianism thing for a little while. There is a genius to a properly cut and built pastrami on rye, and that genius is both in short supply and may not be financially viable for much longer. Do I really plan to go my entire life without ever eating lox again? And delis have already, for the most part, removed lungen stew from their menus, the meal largely made from cow's lung. If I get the chance to try it, as unappetizing as it sounds, can I really pass it up? Will my life be richer or poorer for the lack of classic, meaty deli food?

Poorer, obviously. I don't know that the deli can survive as it is now, but, by God, deli food must always have a place in the Jewish-American diet. Is there a podcast on this topic? I feel like I need to start listening to a deli podcast.