Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's become of the Jewish deli?

Erik Greenberg Anjou’s Deli Man, opening Friday at The Maple Theater, is the film parallel to author David Sax’s 2009 book Save the Deli, an ode to the culinary gift that diasporic Jews have bestowed upon North America. But the film, like the book’s obvious title, is bittersweet (excuse the pun) because the Jewish delicatessen long ago started a major decline. Whereas in the 1930s there were more than 1500 kosher delis in New York’s five boroughs now there might be 200 authentic such delis across the entire USA. What happened? The movie suggests suburbanization usurped the countless neighborhood Manhattan delis for a few large ones at Long Island shopping plazas. Dennis Howard of New York’s Carnegie Deli points to “city agencies, city ordinances, unions.” And one gleans that running a deli isn’t for the faint of heart - the long hours, low margins, and the increasing cost of foodstuffs - means younger generations simply don’t want the toil and trouble. Yet other commercial ethnic cuisines not only are stable but have flourished for diners who thrill to the ever increasing diversity of foods from different nations and cultures. Why Jewish cuisine has declined so remarkably isn’t fully explained. But what Deli Man, a generally enjoyable film,  does do well is celebrate those delis that continue to thrive, from Ben’s Best and 2nd Avenue in New York to Nate ‘n Al and Canter’s in Los Angeles, and several geographically in between. Along the way we get pithy and usually fun-filled dissertations from a host of deli aficionados and experts - from comedians and commentators like Jerry Stiller and Larry King to the learned legalist and retired Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz.  Commenting on the Carnegie portions, comedian Freddie Roman says, “You have to go for a jaw adjustment after eating the sandwich.” The documentary is centred on David “Ziggy” Gruber (above left), perhaps the most exemplary younger purveyor of kosher food whose goal is to keep the deli tradition alive, including the preparation of many niche Eastern European dishes seldom found anywhere else. “When I cook I feel my ancestors around…you can taste the diaspora,” he says. The movie abounds with scenes of the fast paced kitchens and spirited bustle of the typical deli, from brusque but endearing staff (“even if you’ve never been there before they’re going to talk to you like you have” says author Michael Wex) to the linking of this early “fast food” to delis' traditional place in the community. “We’re part of the life cycle,” says Ben’ Best’s Jay Parker about his special orders. “If it’s a Bris (circumcision) you call us…and we do Shiva (mourning) work too.”  What’s lacking in the movie - and it’s a big lack - is any mention of what many contend are the best deli sandwiches anywhere - those found in Montreal. Only one Canadian deli - Toronto’s Caplansky’s - is featured. But Montreal holds a hallowed pace in North American Jewish culture and food, notably in the iconic smoked meat sandwich exemplified by Schwartz’s delicatessen, which differs from the ubiquitous American pastrami. The fact that it was omitted is really something to kvetch about.

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