Houston has a starring role in the documentary Deli Man, which debuted at the River Oaks Theatre Friday. Ziggy Gruber, the "Delimaven" behind Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen Restaurant in the Galleria area, stars in the movie, which examines the role delis played in Jewish culture during the 20th century.
Through interviews with celebrities like Larry King, Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel, Deli Man documents the rise of deli culture beginning with Jewish-German immigrants in the 1850's and kicking into high gear when Eastern European Jews came to America in the 1880's and 90's.
According to the movie, certified kosher delis peaked in 1931 at over 1,500 in the five boroughs of New York alone — an astonishing number that doesn't include New York's suburbs or kosher-style establishments that served both meat and dairy. Interviews attributed part of delis' success to their ability to provide Jews with a taste of home (goulash, offal soup) while also serving up new dishes like corned beef sandwiches that never existed in Europe.
Recruited by real estate developer Lenny Friedman to come to Houston in 1999, Gruber says that at first he considered the city to be "like Deliverance for Jews," but Kenny & Ziggy's quickly found an audience.
Commentary from deli owners and their descendants, many of whom are second and third generation delimen like Gruber, document the central role that restaurants like the Carnegie Deli, Stages Deli and the 2nd Avenue Deli played in people's lives. Whether celebrating a birth, mourning a death or any family occasion in between, Jews turned to delis for comfort and sustenance.
After World War II, Jews migrated to the suburbs and deli culture withered. Between assimilation and the destruction of Eastern European Jewry during the Holocaust, not much new blood came into the deli business. Today, only about 150 kosher or kosher style delis exist in the entire country.
In addition to this look at deli culture and history, the movie provides some insight into Gruber's life. How he, as a third generation deliman, entered the business under the tutelage of his grandfather at the age of 8 and never looked back.
The movie documents that Gruber attended Le Cordon Bleu in London for culinary school and was headed on a fine dining path when he attended a deliman's convention in New York and changed paths to enter into the family business. Recruited by real estate developer Lenny Friedman to come to Houston in 1999, Gruber says that at first he considered the city to be "like Deliverance for Jews," but Kenny & Ziggy's quickly found an audience.
Gruber's brother describes him as "married to the deli," but Deli Man has a romantic side. The movie follows Gruber's budding relationship with Mary McCaughey. One of the movie's final scenes is their wedding in Hungary at the same synagogue where Gruber's grandfather became a bar mitzvah. The Grubers recently became parents with the birth of their daughter, Izzy.
"The reality is I’m always the same way," Gruber says. "What you see is what you get. If you follow me around, this is who I am."
At a party to celebrate the premiere Wednesday night, Gruber tells CultureMap that he's very happy with the way he's depicted in the movie. "The reality is I’m always the same way," Gruber says. "What you see is what you get. If you follow me around, this is who I am."
Gruber's marriage and the rise of two new delis, Caplansky's in Toronto and Wise Sons in San Francisco, help end the movie on an upbeat note. Deli culture may never exceed its Depression-era peak, but, with stewards like Ziggy Gruber, Jews and Gentiles alike will always have access to corned beef, knishes and matzah ball soup.
Gruber's immediate future as it relates to Dubrow's New York Grill, his concept for the former Sorrel Urban Bistro, has been stalled by a landlord dispute. Asked for a status update, the deliman is polite by succinct. "We’re just letting our attorney handle the whole thing. That’s all I can talk about, but we’re very confident," Gruber says.
Whatever the future holds, Deli Man is a worthwhile watch. Just don't go hungry. Or, if you do, have plans to eat immediately after.
Full disclosure: The author's mother contributed money to the production, and she is thanked in the credits.