Jewish Comfort Food
Something has happened to the way we eat in America today and it has to do with trends in low-calorie food. Those wonderful traditions of the Jewish delis are not in favor when we think about eating soaked smoked meat sandwiches, whitefish salad and cabbage soup like their grandparents did. There were once thousands of Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, according to this new film, there are only 150 in all of North America.
Ziggy Gruber, the owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston, tells us “it’s more than just food. It’s for the soul, for the heart.” “When I cook, I feel my ancestors around. And that’s what drives me. Someone’s gotta take this food and continue it.”
One of the things I looked forward to when I moved to Boston was the deli and I was disappointed to find out that so many were gone. Yet there are two near where I live but neither is kosher. I have always felt that eating at a deli is an experience that I do not feel at other restaurants. Just read this description, “For some, delicatessen food is close to a religious experience. A tender, crumbling cut of corned beef steeped in its juices. A full-bodied garlic dill pickle. Spicy brown mustard with grain. A blintz that melts in your mouth like a creamsicle on a summer’s day. Recipes and culinary garnishes from Hungary, Poland, Russia, Romania that flowed into late 19th and early 20th century America and soon became part of an American culinary and cultural vernacular – Deli.”
Our principal guide in Deli Man, Ziggy Gruber is a third-generation delicatessen man, owner and maven (as well as a Yiddish-speaking French trained chef) who currently operates one of the country’s top delis.
The story of the American deli is the story of Jews – their immigration, migration, upward mobility, and western assimilation. New York may always be the most populous, celebrated and redolent Jewish node. But there have also been other places where Jews have gone— from Chicago to Detroit, San Francisco to L.A., and Galveston to Houston and Dallas.
In 1931, the City of New York’s Department of Public Markets listed 1,550 kosher delicatessen stores and 150 kosher dairy restaurants in the five boroughs; while today there are approximately 21 kosher and non-kosher delis of repute). Ziggy probably could have done better to chose another livelihood. But he grew up in the business, and he loved it. His uncle and great-uncle owned Berger’s in the diamond district, and the Woodrow Deli on Long Island. His grandfather owned the famous Rialto Delicatessen on Broadway, and Ziggy was stuffing cabbages atop of a crate when he was eight. Jewish food and Ziggy were inseparable.
The story of deli does not just belong to isn’t Ziggy alone. It’s the history, anecdotes and humor that once made one’s local delicatessen the virtual epicenter not only of food, but also of family, laughter and community. “Deli Man” visited the Carnegie, Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Nate ‘n Al and Langer’s, as well as interviewed some of the great mavens, comedians and connoisseurs of deli, including Jerry Stiller, Alan Dershowitz, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker (Ben’s Best), Fyvush Finkel, and Larry King. The documentary has also toured some of the new shining lights in the deli biz, including Wise Sons’ in San Francisco and Caplansky’s in Toronto.
As noted in the film, deli “is not one of the more subtle foods in the world” but then neither are its customers.
There are two types of people in this world, those who love Delis and those you shouldn’t associate with.” – Damon Runyon