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Tracing The Path Of The 'Deli Man' Across North America


The best deli food can be a religious experience - the aroma of juicy brisket, the flavor of onions fried in schmaltz, the crunch of a garlic dill pickle seasoned to perfection. (SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DELIMAN")

ZIGGY GRUBER: That flavor cries of the old country. You can taste the diaspora. You can taste it.

LAKSHMANAN: That's Ziggy Gruber. He's a third-generation deli owner working in Houston these days. And he's the heart of a new documentary called "Deli Man" that traces the history of the Jewish delicatessen in North America. The film was the last in a trilogy on Jewish culture from Erik Greenberg Anjou. He joins us now from our studio in New York. Welcome, Mr. Anjou.

ERIK GREENBERG ANJOU: Hi, Indira, nice to meet you.

LAKSHMANAN: You trace the history of delis through an affectionate portrait of this deli man named Ziggy Gruber. What's his story?

GREENBERG ANJOU: Ziggy's story is he's a third-generation deli owner-operator born on the lower Eastside. He had gone to chef school in England. He's a classically trained French chef and ended up in Houston, Texas by way of a couple of fortuitous introductions. So Ziggy is my guy. I met him very early on in the process of making the documentary, and he was certainly one of my inspirations. (SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DELIMAN")

GRUBER: Who is going to perpetuate this food? This is my calling. Someone's got to take this and continue it.

LAKSHMANAN: Well, tell us about the first delis. They started out catering to eastern European sweatshop workers?

GREENBERG ANJOU: The first were actually German delis. As the German-Jewish population kind of took hold, there became German-Jewish delis. But then as different Jewish immigrant groups started to come to the country, the eastern European groups - each one of them brought a strain of their culinary tradition. So for example, something like pastrami was not something that you would find in Germany or even in a Jewish-German deli. Later on into the 19th century, Romanian pastrami became a prominent dish.

LAKSHMANAN: And something peppery and spicy, more so than actual food from the old country.

GREENBERG ANJOU: Absolutely. I mean, one of the ironies is people talk about deli as an old-time food. It's relatively novel. These were, first of all, takeout restaurants, so to speak. You'd come in. They'd be very small shops. Mom would be cooking in the back. You'd order. You'd take your sandwich. And you'd walk out to the street and eat it. So this big deli experience that we kind of now in our culture didn't exist at all.

LAKSHMANAN: Well, the Jewish deli by now is a mainstay of American popular culture. There's "When Harry Met Sally," "Seinfeld." They've become sort of a symbol of a certain kind of New York experience. So when did delis transition from an ethnic niche into the mainstream?

GREENBERG ANJOU: I would say it really wasn't until the post-World War II experience where the Jewish population had enough roots, enough financial security to kind of, like, go out and eat at these restaurants. There was a real revolution that was started by a guy named Max Asnas at The Stage. He was very, very vibrant, very entertaining. And the deli experience became something larger. And also there was a transition from the kosher shop in, say, the late 19th century. All of a sudden, you know, as Jews became more secularized there became a hunger for maybe mixing meat and dairy.

LAKSHMANAN: At the most famous delis in New York now there's always a line of out-of-towners stretching down the block. And I wonder are delis still a place where Jews go to remember their culture? Or have they become kind of a tourist attraction for others who want to experience that culture?

GREENBERG ANJOU: Well that's the million dollar question, really. And to see whether we're at a true tipping point or just a transitional period for the delis. I mean, in the 1930s, there were literally thousands of Jewish shops. Now let's say, 150 in the entirety of North America. That's a precipitous decline. Within the last year, approximately five delis on Long Island closed. Approximately two weeks ago, a legendary store in Toronto - which is a huge deli town - called Pancer's went off the map. So it's a real challenge to keep these businesses going. At the same time, there is this passionate hunger for the food.

LAKSHMANAN: Now all the deli owners in your film say that it's such a grueling business physically, emotionally, financially. So why do they still do it?

GREENBERG ANJOU: That's a great question. And to answer that question correctly is the key to survival. I think that, you know, for a lot of these deli guys, this is the last thing that their fathers wanted them to do. But in life you figure out, you know, what hat fits. These guys wrestled long and hard with the choices they were going to make. And going into the deli business, you are not going to get rich. But you're surrounded by community, and these little restaurants serve these communities in very powerful and important ways.

LAKSHMANAN: Erik Greenberg Anjou - he's the director of the documentary "Deli Man" opening in theaters later this month. Thank you so much.

GREENBERG ANJOU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.