Deli Man Dir. Erik Anjou

[Cohen Media Group; 2015]

Styles: documentary, food
Others: I Like Killing Flies, Spinning Plates, The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground

Of all the various foodways that pepper American culture, the development of deli culture is one of its most unique. Whereas fusion cuisine is by and large an experiment in juxtaposition that either works or doesn’t based mainly on its novelty, the tradition of the American deli is a foodway that incorporated disparate flavors almost begrudgingly and took well over a hundred years to do so. A concept originally imported to the States from Germany, deli culture fairly quickly took on pronounced Eastern European and Jewish influences, resulting in an intensely flavorful and quintessentially American East Coast character. In Deli Man, Director Erik Anjou sets out with the best intentions to capture some of the weird essence that makes deli culture so intriguing, but ultimately lacks some of the focus that would make his work a bit more compelling.

The history of the American deli is undoubtedly fascinating to anyone interested in how foodways develop, and this particular food tradition enjoys the benefit of being thoroughly well documented, having come into its own in one of the most notable cities on the planet. At one point in the 1930s there were over 1,500 delis in Manhattan alone, a number that’s shrunk to less than 25 currently. With that in mind, Anjou’s film is something of a love letter to a food tradition he sees on its wane, although the content of his own film tends to suggest it’s just slowly morphing into something new again.

The central focus of Deli Man is Ziggy Gruber, a New York native who inherited a passion for everything to do with running a deli from his grandfather, subsequently opening a successful delicatessen in Houston Texas. While it seems a little odd at first for a film about a traditionally very New York thing to spend the bulk of its time in the largest city in the American south, Gruber is quick to point out that Jewish culture in Texas predates the founding of the United States, with Jewish immigrants coming to the New World as early as the 16th century. As a means to sort of seal the deal, Gruber remarks on an apocryphal anecdote that the reason people in El Norte started making flour tortillas was so the Jews would have something to eat for Passover. Although it’s demonstrably false, it’s the kind of beautiful story that permeates the film (and deli culture in general).

It’s fascinating to watch Gruber work in his deli, relating as he does so well to the senior citizens that apparently form the bulk of his clientele. Growing up working with his grandfather, Gruber developed an early affinity towards the elderly, and his care and concern is touching without feeling forced. Gruber chokes up when he speaks about his grandfather and the old ways he brought with him from Hungary, and has devoted himself to maintaining the same values and traditions in his cooking, which, when we’re allowed to see it in action, is terrific. Gruber’s passion sort of serves as a lens through which Anjou views deli culture and the important role its played in developing a uniquely American sense of Jewish identity.

Anjou’s crafted an entertaining and heartfelt (if a little sappy) documentary that’s worth checking out if you’re at all interested deli culture, or just want to see some lovingly shot footage of Jewish food being prepared. When Deli Man gets serious it has plenty of totally valid and important points to make about the gravity of food in its relation to culture, and how it connects us to those who’ve come before us and those who’ll come after us. It would have made for a much more interesting film had Anjou decided to go a bit further in that direction and ditched a few of the more zany anecdotes about how nuts it was to eat at the Carnegie deli back in the days of Zero Mostel and the height of Broadway.

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