For director Erik Anjou the movie Deli Man was a way to realize a vision for a trilogy of documentaries about Jewish culture. Yet, the movie Deli Man is much more of a cinematic experience in the way it plays with the foodie audience’s expectation of a great tasting movie.
“I had made a movie about Cantorial music, I had made a movie about Klezmer music. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was exploring how we hold on to the past as a way of making the present relevant,” Anjou says in an interview with Free Press Houston. His movie The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground had played in Houston at a local Jewish film festival, and introduced him to Ziggy Gruber who was one of the sponsors.
Anjou was making a doc about Jewish delicatessens in and Ziggy was the perfect choice to spotlight as a central character. After all Ziggy’s aptly named Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen, located on South Post Oak in the Galleria area, is one of the premiere deli restaurants in North America.
“What Ziggy was doing through film was what I wanted to achieve through my writing and filmmaking,” says Anjou.
You interview a lot of people on the film beat but it’s rare when your interviewee feeds you. As I sit down for the interview, conducted at Kenny & Ziggy’s, Ziggy asks me if I’ve eaten breakfast. Without missing a beat Ziggy walks over to the kitchen window and orders me some scrambled eggs with lox, potatoes and a toasted bagel with cream cheese. Anjou is munching on scrambled eggs with pastrami bacon. I try not to spit food across the table as I ask questions with a full mouth.
“”Subsequent to that I’d read a book by David Sax called “Save The Deli” and there’s some staggering information in that book,” explains Anjou. In the 1930s there were thousands of kosher delis in the five boroughs of New York and today there are about 150 such establishments on the entire continent.
Deli Man familiarizes the audience with the concept of what a deli mean while traveling to other famous delis in Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, and New York, among other places. Anjou concentrated on Ziggy as a central figure to give the film “a narrative turbine. He’s a classically trained French chef, he’s the counter guy, and he’s the schmoozer extraordinaire.”
“I like kibitzing with the customers,” says Ziggy.
Deli Man reveals what makes a kosher deli special. It’s things like schmaltz or chicken fat, an important ingredient in preparing meals; or challah, a kosher egg bread. “Emeril says that pork fat rules; I disagree with him – chicken fat rules,” says Ziggy.
There’s also the matter of things past. No matter how many times Ziggy primes his gravy recipe he can never replicate the same gravy he remembers his grandfather making. Some things were never written down and are now lost. “I make fantastic gravy. I don’t what he put into it,” says Ziggy. “There’s a spice, there’s something there that’s missing.”
Ziggy traced his family genealogy to Eastern Europe. “I have a relative in Chicago and they’re from my grandmother’s uncle’s family. Then he started telling me some of the history. I can go back, which is hard for Jewish genealogy in Eastern Europe, all the way to the early 1700s. My grandfather’s family was originally from Galicia, which was right next to Hungary and Romania. Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, it’s like a little strip between all those countries,” explains Ziggy.
“Eventually they moved to Budapest, my grandfather and his brother. After World War I my grandfather basically was walking down the street one day and he saw two soldiers beating up a Jewish guy. He jumped in and beat the hell out of these two guys. The whole community said ‘You’ve got to leave or they’re going to kill you.’ Gave him a couple of pennies, forged his papers, and my grandfather rode his bicycle from Budapest to La Havre, France. Jumped on a steamship and came to this country with nothing,” says Ziggy.
“He was stealing bread for the first two nights, then he got a job in a restaurant and the rest is history.”
Deli Man opens in an exclusive engagement at the River Oaks Three this weekend. Bring an appetite for thought.
- Michael Bergeron