In 1931, there were more than 1,500 kosher delicatessen stores in New York City, whereas now, there are about 20 major kosher and non-kosher delis, according to the press materials for the documentary “Deli Man.” What caused the drop-off, and why do the die-hards persist? Those are the questions that Erik Greenberg Anjou attempts to answer in "Deli Man," a film brimming with nostalgia for the flavors of a bygone era.
Anjou's film is a series of chats with deli owners, many of them second- and third-generation, across North America. Iconic delis like Katz's on the Lower East Side and Canter's in Los Angeles are mentioned, but the film's focus is on lesser-known gems like Kenny and Ziggy's in -- of all places -- Houston. What about Zingerman's in Ann Arbor? Or Wolfie Cohen's now-shuttered Rascal House in South Florida? Everyone has a favorite deli, of course; Anjou can't get to them all.
The Houston-based David "Ziggy" Gruber -- he's related to the owners of the Woodro deli in Hewlett -- becomes our amiable tour guide through a niche world. He has some stories, including one in which he talked his way into London's Le Cordon Bleu institute with sheer enthusiasm (and a donation to the school's "discretionary fund"). Ziggy also has a way with words: His food is so authentic "you can taste the Diaspora," and his lox is so paper-thin "you could see an eclipse through it."
That, however, is also a fair description of this slim documentary. Anjou listens carefully to his subjects and enlists a couple of celebrity "experts" (Larry King is identified as a "deli maven"), but never dives much deeper. There's a sense that the most colorful deli owners, mostly Old World émigrés, are gone; their progeny soldier on in the face of changing tastes and rising rents.
If nothing else, "Deli Man" serves as a work of field research. It's Anjou's third film on Jewish culture and was made with funding from the Hartley Film Foundation, which supports documentaries about world religions.