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Friday, February 20, 2015

Wise Sons and Others in a New Film About the Food & Culture of Jewish Delis

Posted By on Fri, Feb 20, 2015 at 11:51 AM

click to enlarge Ziggy Gruber - COHEN MEDIA
  • Cohen Media
  • Ziggy Gruber

A new documentary called Deli Man opens in early March, and is an interesting look at the culture, food, and people of Jewish delis. Look for a serving of Bay Area representation in the form of commentary & footage from Wise Sons proprietors Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman — shown transporting bakers’ racks through the Mission & sharing that the high cost of meat makes it tough to run a business.

click to enlarge Ziggy Gruber cooking at his restaurant. - COHEN MEDIA
  • Cohen Media
  • Ziggy Gruber cooking at his restaurant.

The strength of the film is its focus on third-generation deli man Ziggy Gruber, a youthful man who is so obsessed with the food and culture of delis that he leaves behind a promising career as a white tablecloth chef with fancy digs in the UK. His description of attending a meeting of the deli minds in New York and realizing no one appeared to be ready to continue the tradition of the older seniors is telling. Other delis get coverage, including Caplansky’s, Ben’s Best, Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Nate ‘n Al, Carnegie, and the Stage with enough pictures of good pickles, sandwiches, kugel, and matzo ball soup to get that tummy rumbling.

It's enjoyable to learn about the food and traditions that luminaries enjoy at delis from Jerry Stiller, Alan Dershowitz, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker, Fyvush Finkel, and Larry King —the deli tradition started as a place for new immigrants to socialize, but it also has been a draw to many entertainers and the chance to talk shop before or after an audition or Broadway show.

The people of delis are depicted as an important element to the Jewish delis experience; you want to return for your usual meal but also kvetch with the owner and staff. Viewers will find themselves rooting for Gruber, who is so serious about delis that he continues to cook at his popular restaurant and has amassed a wonderful collection of deli menus. Like other restaurant workers, the deli men presented here rightly point out how much dedication and actual labor and love is needed to want to stay in the business — yet they also point out as crazy as the business can be, it is a place that is welcome and known, and that they wouldn't want to hack it at, say, an office job.

Gruber remains a great example of how the love of food and culture can be a motivator and even reason for life’s purpose — it’s fun to see his journey yet I found myself wanting to order a Reuben, matzo ball soup, and egg cream soda to make sure he continues to succeed. Also, I hope the delis presented here remain a part of our society, since it is a different sort of gathering place worth preserving and supporting. 

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Mary Ladd

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