According to David Sax, author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen, in 1930, there were more than 3,000 Jewish delicatessens in New York City in 1930. In 2009, that number had dwindled to a few dozen.
The numbers haven't just been dwindling in New York. The new movie Deli Man says that there are now only a few hundred Jewish delis nationwide.
Ziggy Gruber, chef and co-owner of Kenny & Ziggy's in Houston, is one of the few "deli men" holding the line and ensuring these repositories of food, culture and tradition survive. He has a prominent role in Deli Man and his scenes with his dad, girlfriend (now wife), and brother are emotional focal points that give the film a whole lot of heart and soul.
On a tour of former deli sites in Manhattan and finding they've disappeared, Gruber voices his disappointment to his father, who pragmatically says, "Everything changes. That's nature. Nothing is forever." While that's both wise and true, imagining the loss of retreats that serve Kosher delights like bagels and lox, chopped liver and homey chicken soup with matzo balls is too much to bear.
Other delis featured in the movie include Nate 'n Al in Beverly Hills and Katz's Delicatessen, 2nd Avenue Deli, Carnegie Deli, and Stage Deli, all in New York City.
Stage Deli, which was famous for Broadway-themed dishes and a rivalry with Carnegie Deli, lost its battle for survival in 2012. Rising rent and a downturn in business were cited as the reasons they closed. The movie mentions that it suffered a disadvantage due to renting instead of owning the property it resided on.
That being said, Deli Man is not all doom and gloom. There's a great deal of humor strewn throug the film, like the recounts of the oddly barbed yet affectionate relationships between delis and their regular customers. ("This soup is too salty." "Did you try it?" "No. It looks too salty.")
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It concludes on some hopeful notes that indicate that the key to the survival of the Jewish deli lie with young restaurant owners willing to embrace new ways of thinking about food and service that still honor tradition.
You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate Deli Man. You only have to care about history, tradition and a good pastrami on rye. Check out the trailer here.
Deli Man opens on Friday, February 27 and Houstonians can see the film at the Landmark River Oaks Theatre. Click here for showtimes and tickets.