I recently went to see the new documentary Deli Man and it did three things to me:
- It made me hungry. Very, very hungry.
- It tugged at my emotions – bringing me back to my childhood and the neighborhood deli we had just around the corner.
- It made me sad because all I wanted as the credits rolled was a pastrami sandwich, but I live in a town where the deli has died.
Deli Man focuses on Ziggy Gruber – a 3rd-generation deli man who owns and operates a fantastic food heaven in Houston, Texas. Yes, I said Houston, Texas. With 40,000+ Jews in the Twin Cities, we have no true delis, but Houston, effing, Texas has Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen. The film is an ode to a fading, but still vibrant part of Jewish culture. Yet as I looked around the theater, I realized I was the youngest person in the theater – and I’m 40.
I first met Ziggy a few years back as part of my job researching and booking locations for the Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Against the advice of my executive producer, I fought hard to include as many Jewish delis as I could. I was told that our host “wasn’t comfortable” with Jewish food; that he couldn’t pronounce some of the words; that he didn’t get what it is we Jews do. I proceeded anyway.
Ziggy proclaims in the film that he does what he does in order to perpetuate this most important part of our collective Jewish experience. And while I wish I had the means to open a real deli here, I figured the least I could do was feature delis on the shows I helped produce. Kenny & Ziggy’s was one of three delis I featured over the years– along with The Bagel Deli in Denver, and Ben’s Best in my hometown of Queens, NY.
What makes the deli such an important part of Jewish culture? The film mentions that the deli became a second home, where one could get the foods of home served with love and care. When I left Kenny & Ziggy’s for the airport, Ziggy made sure I had a sandwich for the flight. When I’m in Denver, owners Steve and Rhoda Kaplan feed me as if a famine is impending. They also send me care packages for every holiday – treats hard to find in Minnesota. And Jay Parker (featured in the film), owner of Ben’s Best, makes sure I get the royal treatment every time I come in. Going to a deli is the next best thing to going to Grandma’s house. My Grandma has been gone for a several years now, but G-d help me if I don’t think of her every single time I’m in a deli. We’re a people who often define ourselves by our culture, and the deli is a stalwart of that culture.
I wanted to see Deli Man since I heard about it, but one of the reasons I felt compelled to write all this in the first place was our newest attempt at a deli in the Twin Cities, Prime Deli and Restaurant. For reasons already mentioned, when I heard that a kosher deli was opening, I got excited. I went there soon after it opened and got a sandwich. The place didn’t look like a deli and it didn’t smell like a deli – so I should have known it wasn’t actually a deli. But it says it’s a deli – right in the name. So I ordered a sandwich and the counter person asked me what kind of bread I wanted. I should have walked out right then. But I ate the sandwich and it wasn’t very good.
A few weeks back, TC Jewfolk’s Editor posted his review on this site. It wasn’t received well – mostly by the Minneapolis kosher community.
One person said, “…and people seriously need to get over the idea that you can judge a place by their pastrami sandwich – lets move on from that stereotype.” Excuse me??? Call yourself a deli but don’t expect to be judged by your pastrami sandwich? Are you insane? Should I judge Manny’s by their salads? How about I judge Starbucks by their yogurt parfaits? Pastrami is a stereotype of what exactly? How about trying to be proud of your heritage and your culinary roots? The deli is that place – not some random kosher restaurant that doesn’t look, smell, or feel very Jewish at all.
People weren’t happy that their brand new meat palace got any negative attention. I, too, got some pushback for supporting that piece. But I was implored to go back and order some of the non-deli foods. That confused me, but I went along with it.
I took TCJ’s Editor as my dining companion and we ordered dinner based on the most highly recommended items. The skewered chicken wings came out in a cone, like the kind you might see filled with French fries. The wings were split and vertically skewered. It was a confusing proposition – do you eat it on or off the skewer? Was the skewer there for practicality or for presentation? We both thought they were OK, but only for those who’ve never been to BWW before.
For my entrée, I had the steak. Out came a pretty plate with pre-sliced steak and a nice looking coffee-based rub. Now, I get why salt on kosher beef is a no-no – it draws out whatever minimal moisture is left. But, I’ve never before in my life had to add salt to a steak in a restaurant. It was acceptable enough – but nothing I would ever order again.
[Editor’s note: I had the beet salad, which was delicious, though a beet salad is kind of just a beet salad. I also ordered the burger. That, too, was good, but I probably won’t rush back for it. However, overall, my second visit to Prime (ordering the “restaurant” items rather than the “deli” items) was much more delicious than my first.]
Perhaps people like that commenter are why there are no real delis here. Is it shame? Is there a fear of Jewish food stereotypes? Those damn Jews and their delicious pastrami sandwiches!!! This person is the reason why I had to suffer through Deli Man – her and everyone else with that really sad attitude towards OUR place on the world culinary map.
The film goes into some detail about the fading deli. Once there were thousands of neighborhood delis in New York City alone. Thousands. Now, there might be 150 throughout all of North America. But as we see in the film, there is still life – Houston, San Francisco, Toronto, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, Chicago – all cities with thriving delis. There’s even a booming deli business in Auckland, New Zealand, where there are less Jews than on a Sun Country flight to Palm Springs in the wintertime. Oh yeah, Palm Springs has two delis as well.
Ziggy and the other deli men tell us how hard the business is – that it’s not a life for everyone. But at the same time, they absolutely love what they do and simply couldn’t do anything else. Earning a living is great. But earning a living and continuing the traditions of your people is even better. I applaud all the deli men out there – especially Ziggy Gruber – who made this film happen. It’s important that we support delis across the country so our kids and grandkids even have that option. And if someone should have the balls to open a real deli in Minneapolis, don’t bitch about it – just go there, spend your money, and eat. Think of your grandma – she’ll approve.
Another comment I can’t ignore was, “…people shouldn’t get stuck on the deli concept because its an absolutely delicious restaurant.” THEN WHY DO YOU CALL YOURSELF A DELI??? It’s a shonde. A pure, unadulterated shonde.
Prime is a perfectly acceptable kosher meat restaurant that serves a purpose. The food is fine – not great – but perfectly fine for what it is. But by calling the place a deli, there are certain things any reasonable Jew would expect to see. Prime Deli and Restaurant fails to provide those things. And after seeing the film, it became crystal clear that they should remove deli from the name of the restaurant before Ziggy Gruber comes to town, kidnaps me, takes me back to Houston, and force feeds me to get over that mishegas.
What is a deli, you ask? Here are my Top 10 Ways to Know You’re In a REAL Jewish Deli:
10. You sit down and a bowl of pickles is waiting for you. You don’t have to ask for them. You don’t have to pay for them. Cole slaw too. Maybe a pickled tomato.
9. There’s a grouchy old lady at the register. She calls everyone ‘hun.’
8. Her husband is behind the counter wearing a white butcher’s outfit stained with meat juice.
7. There is only one kind of mustard available. It’s called DELI MUSTARD. Not yellow mustard by Heinz. Not Grey Poupon. Not honey mustard for crying out loud. D-E-L-I Mustard. Yes, it’s a thing.
6. There’s a display case. The meats are in there. The knishes are in there. The kishke is in there. Jews like to see what they’re about to eat – there’s no other way to explain it.
5. When you order a sandwich, no one asks you what kind of bread you’d like that on. It’s called rye bread. That’s it.
4. The meat is cut by old guys behind the counter when you order it.
3. There are salamis hanging in the window. A wise man once said, “the longer it hangs, the better it tastes.”
2. Dr. Brown’s. It’s the official beverage of the deli. Cream, Cel-Ray, Black Cherry, you know.
1. The smell. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.