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Review: ‘Deli Man’ is full of flavour and heart (Includes first-hand account)

Food is not just a source of nourishment. It’s a way of life. It defines a culture and the people that belong to it. And of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing it that is subject to change depending on the person performing the evaluation. Deli Man explores the rise of the delicatessen in New York and the rest of North America from the perspective of its purveyors and patrons.

There was a time when there was a delicatessen on every corner in New York. The first delis were started by German immigrants, followed by Jews who opened kosher alternatives. A pickle and a sandwich were considered a meal, especially for the working class who appreciated the simplicity of grabbing a quick and easy meal. Everyone had their favourite location and sandwich. But the heyday of the neighbourhood delicatessen passed, decreasing their numbers from thousands in the city to mere hundreds across the country. Though the film speaks to the multi-generational owners, it focuses specifically on Ziggy Gruber, who learned the business from his grandfather and still operates a successful business. And even though everyone agrees it’s a gruelling job, they wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Shaved roast beef between fresh rye bread with a little mustard or perhaps pastrami with a “lining” of garlic. Everyone has a favourite sandwich and a story that goes along with it. Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Fyvush Finkel and others share their tales of “their” neighbourhood deli, shining a light on why most shops in the city still flaunt a wall of fame. Though each storefront runs independently of each other, one basically knows what to expect when walking through the door.

Like most of the sandwich-inheritors in the documentary, Ziggy was indoctrinated in the kitchen at an early age. Even though his plan always included taking over the family business, his father insisted he attend cooking school and become a trained chef. So after enrolling in a London culinary institute at 15, Ziggy was given a position at a three-star Michelin restaurant where he cooked for royalty. Eventually he returned home, only to realize America’s delis were endangered by the age of its proprietors. So he insisted on taking over his family’s establishment and turned it into a thriving restaurant in Texas called Kenny and Ziggy’s. The stress of running the business has taken its toll on him, but he’s finally starting to turn his attention inward.

Guided through the history of the delicatessen in North America by a varied group of characters, by the end of the movie the desire to find and lay claim to one’s own local deli is hard to resist. Unlike many food docs, this film isn’t trying to provide insight into a secret world but rather look at what makes a seemingly common experience unique.

Director: Erik Greenberg Anjou

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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