You may see better, more Oscar-worthy documentaries this year. But you will never see one more mouth watering than “Deli Man,” Erik Greenberg Anjou’s look at the dying dietary tradition of America’s Jewish delicatessens. It’s a playful and tasty crash course in deli history, deli dining and deli language, a world of smoked meats, cured meats and fresh fish. Vegetarians are excused. But for the rest of us, take notes and you might understand how to properly “Jew it up” when you visit one, as Toronto deli owner Zane Caplansky likes to put it. You’ll learn that greater New York had over 1500 Kosher delis, and just as many Jewish non-Kosher ones at the peak of delic chic — the 1940s. “One on every street corner,” entertainers like Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel marvel. Now, there aren’t but 150 or so all over North America. You’ll learn that pastrami was an invention of Romanian Jewish immigrants and that “schmaltz” (poultry fat) is “the WD-40 or the Kosher kitchen — the KY of the Jewish marriage, too.” Yeah, you’re going to pick up a shtickle of Yiddish, especially words that relate to “haimishe maykholim” — comfort food — deli dishes, not all of them Old World Jewish, strictly speaking. We visit Katz’s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Manny’s in Chicago, Canter’s in Los Angeles and Nate N Al’s in Beverly Hills, Yitz’s in Toronto and Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston. That’s where Anjou’s film finds its mensch, David “Ziggy Gruber, grandson of a deli man, a London-trained chef who looked at the old men aging out of the business and asked himself, “Who is going to perpetuate this food?” He would, by opening an insanely popular New York delicatessen…in Texas. Ziggy, a portly 40something “married to the business” is the film’s poet. “When I cook, I feel my ancestors around me,” he says. “You can TASTE the diaspora!” The owners, young and old, who still run these restaurants can see them as a grind, a physically, financially (check out the price of meat these days) and emotionally draining job that you live and breathe, seven days a week. The idealistic ones see them as Jewish outreach, creating extended families among their clientele, and as “community builders” in their neighborhoods. And the successful ones are like the late Abe Lebewohl, famed for running New York’s 2nd Ave. Deli, “saving the world, one sandwich at a time.” The experts quoted here range from Stiller and Larry King to deli historians and Canadian writer Michael Wex, who delivers that zinger about “schmaltz.” Watch this movie on an empty stomach and you may not make it to the credits. You’ll be craving a corned beef on rye, and maybe some chicken soup — heavy on the schmaltz. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language Cast: Ziggy Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex Credits: Directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou. A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 1:30
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