A Night at the Deli: The Ultimate Jewish Dinner and a Movie

Combining a screening of the film Deli Man with an actual “pop-up” deli traveling from New York City, the Jewish Alliance of Rhode Island will host the aptly-named “A Night at the Deli” on the PVD East Side on Thursday, Feb. 18.

Deli Man is a documentary about, according to its web site, “More than 160 years of tradition served up by the Jewish deli owners, operators and fanatics who are keeping hot pastrami hot – and a culinary must. Just don’t tell your cardiologist.” It focuses on David “Ziggy” Gruber, a third-generation deli balaboos who runs Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, Texas. The film includes interviews with noted writers on Jewish themes, including David Sax (Save the Deli) and Michael Wex (Born to Kvetch), as well as a number of entertainment celebrities talking about the close ties between delis and the theater, including Fyvush Finkel who credits deli food with helping him live into his 90s.

Preceding the film screening at 7:30pm, there will be a fully catered kosher dinner beginning at 6:00pm served by a team from Ben’s Best Deli of Rego Park in Queens, New York, headed by fourth-generation proprietor Jay Parker, made using the same recipes and processes for over 65 years. The menu includes stuffed cabbage, kasha varnishkes, and latkes (potato pancakes) with apple sauce as appetizers, homemade chicken soup with matzah balls and kreplach (dumplings), a slicing station featuring homemade 21-day dry cured corned beef, slow-smoked signature pastrami, beef tongue, and prime roast beef for the meat, and deli classics such as old-style potato salad, creamy cole slaw, tomato salad, chopped liver, and a pickle barrel.

Erik Greenberg Anjou, the director of Deli Man, will be attending the screening to speak and take questions afterward. Anjou gushed about Jay Parker and Ben’s Deli who appear in the film. “For my dollar, his deli is the best in New York. It’s a small, neighborhood store that represents the best of the tradition.” Rather than catering to tourists, Anjou said, Ben’s Deli is the essence of the old-style neighborhood life that gave rise to the deli in the first place.

“The worst thing is for tradition to not be a living tradition,” Anjou said, citing the example of Eastern European synagogues that can be visited as beautiful attractions “but no one prays there anymore because there are no Jews.” New delis are opening up, he said. “I think that’s good news. People are spending money to eat deli again.”

“Documentaries tend to germinate by accident,” Anjou said, explaining that he met Ziggy Gruber whose philanthropic endeavors included sponsoring a screening of Anjou’s prior documentary The Klezmatics – On Holy Ground about the famous klezmer band. “The light bulb went off,” Anjou said, when he realized Gruber and his Texas deli would make a good subject for his next film, because Gruber is a “lively embodiment of a regular guy who was trying to keep tradition alive.”

Many current deli operators were born into the tradition. “It’s not the sort of business you would encourage your kids to get into. You’re not going to make a lot of money in the deli business,” Anjou said. “We were able to get to these generational successors, one of the nice things about the film.”

There is no doubt Jewish deli is not what it once was, the affordable “fast food” of the working man, in its 1920-1950 heyday. “You can’t ignore the numbers,” he said, as there are now only about 150 traditional Jewish delis left in the entire country as compared to thousands a few decades ago in New York City alone. “There are shining, leading lights out there” in the business now, many of their owners appearing in the film, he said. Kenny & Ziggy’s when they first opened, he said, had a clientele that was about 70% Jewish and 30% not Jewish, but over time this has reversed not because there are less Jews eating there but because more non-Jews are discovering high-quality Jewish deli.

Unlike many other delis, some of them even fairly famous, Kenny & Ziggy’s prepares its own meat from scratch, with aspects of the process shown in the film. Although Ziggy was brought into the deli business by his grandfather, he is a classically trained French chef who was, with his father’s encouragement, headed for a career in fine dining and working his way up in a Michelin-starred restaurant. When Ziggy with his father attended a convention of deli men and realized that everyone else there was in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s, he realized that he had found his calling in life.

Jewish deli is a unique cultural experience well beyond the food. One time when I was working in Manhattan and wanted a late might meal, I walked over to the Carnegie Deli, arguably the most famous deli in the world (and just reopened on Feb. 9 after a months-long hiatus). A little before midnight, a group of theater-goers from out of town – very far out of town, probably the Midwest – came in, just leaving whatever show they had seen, and began trying to decipher the menu. “What’s ‘krep-lash’?” they wondered aloud, mispronouncing the Yiddish word for a kind of dumpling – “kreplach” – that ends with a hard, guttural “ch” sound, like “loch.” After I told them the correct pronunciation and helped them practice until they got it, they asked me how to pronounce “borscht,” but refused to believe me and insisted that I must be putting them on.

The Midwestern tourists were overwhelmed by the huge menu and asked the waiter for a recommendation. “Our Reuben sandwich is world-famous,” he answered. They didn’t know what a Reuben was, so the waiter patiently explained that it involved corned beef. (The Carnegie is Jewish-style but not kosher, and a Reuben mixes meat and dairy in violation of kosher rules.) Traditional deli waiters are notorious for being sarcastic and brusque, and the tourists made themselves an obvious target by admitting they had no idea what corned beef was and had never tasted it, but they decided to try it and ordered Reubens. A few minutes later the waiter came back and apologized that they were out of corned beef, and I immediately realized that something weird was going on because the Carnegie could not possibly run out of its signature menu item. After the tourists expressed disappointment, the waiter started laughing and pointed out that the clock had just crossed midnight, changing from March 31 to April 1. “April fool!” he shouted gleefully, “Of course the Carnegie has corned beef!”

The Jewish Alliance promises only dinner and a movie at “A Night at the Deli,” but you can hope for sarcasm from the waiters.

“A Night at the Deli,” Dwares Jewish Community Center, 401 Elmgrove Ave, PVD, Thu, Feb. 18, 2016, dinner 6pm, film 7:30pm. Price (per person, includes full dinner and admission to the film): $42 non-members, $36 members; seating is limited, reservations required. Web site: https://www.jewishallianceri.org/a-night-at-the-deli/ Telephone: Erin Moseley, 401.421.4111 ext. 108 E-mail; emoseley@jewishallianceri.org

New Jewish Cinema trailer and interview with Erik Greenberg Anjou and David “Ziggy” Gruber: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J06U4oXOc4k

Interview with Jay Parker of Ben’s Best Deli: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY-9ItpIUlY

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