Chinese and Italian cuisines in America recall the traditions of homelands to which their practitioners can return. Not so with the Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe that inform delicatessens; those communities were destroyed in the Holocaust.
This is one of the themes of Deli Man, which documents how New York delis run by German Jews became an Americanizing force to the Yiddish-speaking shtetl Jews immigrating to the States from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century, serving pastrami, salmon, soup, hot dogs, latkes, rye bread, kugel, blintzes, bratwurst, herring salad, and knishes, all tantalizingly documented in the film.
Deli Man includes interviews with deli owners from across the country, as well as such celebrities as Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Freddie Roman, and bespectacled xenomorph Larry King. But the film’s dominant presence is David “Ziggy” Gruber, a third-generation entrepreneur and the title’s deli man. A New Yorker who studied fine culinary arts in Europe, he runs the busy Kenny & Ziggy’s Deli in Houston.
Seemingly out of place amid steakhouses and cowboy hats, the business thrives with the support of a large Jewish population. Large of body and personality, Ziggy seems genuinely to have stepped across time from mid-century New York, or emerged bodily from the authenticity of an ethnic tradition.
“When I cook, I cook with all of my love and my passion into the food…when I smell that smell, I feel my grandfather right beside me,” he says.