Friday, February 27, 2015

Movie with Abe: Deli Man

Deli Man
Directed by Erik Anjou
Released February 27, 2015

Food movies belong to a special category, seasoning their characters, plot development, and whatever else with a certain appetizing style. The sight of cooked or plated food is irresistible, even if the particular dish doesn’t appeal, and descriptions of baking and recipes are mouth-watering. “Deli Man,” a new film that “begins serving around the country” today, adds to the menu by documenting the history of the Jewish deli in America, giving viewers the perfect side to its delicious main course.

New York is an obvious center for this film, which actually focuses much of its time on a deli located elsewhere, in Houston, in fact. Delicatessen operator Ziggy Gruber is the film’s primary subject, an example of how a New York born and raised Jew took what he grew up learning about cooking and the deli business and transplanted it to an entirely new locale, where a welcoming audience ate it up and continues to do so. Ziggy details his connection to his culture and his wish to preserve certain elements of it, all the while stressing about his daily business and unable to think of anything but its welfare.

The fast-moving, unsinkable Ziggy is complemented well by calmer interviews with the owners of notable delis around the country, including Nate and Al’s and 2nd Avenue Deli. Context is given to the evolution of the deli from a strictly kosher institution into more flexible menus and even some controversially creative shops who defy their ancestral heritage in hopes of meeting ever-changing consumer demand. Well-known personalities such as Larry King, Jerry Stiller, and Fyvush Finkel contribute humorous sentiments and anecdotes about their lifelong attachments to and experiences with delis.

In all, this documentary is a delight, proving to be educational in its chronicling of the way in which deli as a cuisine found its way to America and how it has changed over the past century, with thousands of delis in New York now reduced dramatically to a much more quantifiable number. Ziggy may not be in a traditional place, but his work ethic and spirit of his restaurant definitely exemplify a life lived purely in service to the customer. As one interviewee puts in, you can divorce the deli or you can divorce your wife: it’s a business that demands all of you. Fortunately, it’s also a perfectly delicious and delectable topic for a documentary to be enjoyed by all, even those who like cheese on their roast beef or pastrami.


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