Let's face it — most of the foods we think of when we say "Jewish deli" aren't exactly healthy. Pastrami, kreplach, beef brisket, kugel, matzo balls, tongue sandwiches, coconut macaroons, marble cake, and the other dishes that parade before our eyes in the immensely entertaining documentary Deli Man, are nobody's idea of a weight-watcher's diet — fatty, loaded with carbs, and dripping with calories. You'll hate yourself later.
But they taste delicious, and, as we're reminded by our host, David "Ziggy" Gruber of Kenny & Ziggy's in Houston, Texas (Houston, Texas!? Learn to live with it), good deli fare is more than just a Yiddish gut bomb. It's food for the soul, a bite of one of America's most distinctive cultures, a way to communicate with the ancestors, whether yours came to this country from the Pale, or not. Here's a news flash: The Jewish deli is an endangered species. In 1930 there were more than 1,500 kosher delicatessens in the five boroughs of New York; now, there are reportedly only 150 in all of North America. Consider that as you fress your plate of rugelach.
Customers don't go for the food alone. A good deli is one of the finest people-watching spots on the planet. Director Erik Greenberg Anjou's roving camera catches a prize haul of pickle mavens and alter kockers praising their favorites: comedian Jerry Stiller; deli men Dennis Howard (NYC's Carnegie), the Brummer brothers of Newark, and the team of Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman from San Francisco's Wise Sons; and thinkers like David Sax, who notes that the Eastern European shtetl (which a deli re-creates) was wiped out in the Shoah ("Jewish deli is an immigrant food from a place where immigrants no longer come from").
Pull up a chair and listen. Actor Fyvush Finkel tells the story about the waiter he always seemed to get, who corrected everything he tried to order: "I never got what I wanted." Author Michael Wex informs us that "schmaltz is ultimately what determines Jewish food. Poultry fat, the WD-40 of the Jewish kitchen, also the KY Jelly of the Jewish marriage." Ziggy, who started at age eight in his grandfather's New York place, studied at a culinary academy but went into the deli business to perpetuate it as a cultural institution. Like many of the owners interviewed, he comes from a long line of deli men. The only way to explain it is love. Enjoy.