A look at the history of delicatessens in the United States.
Film, and art in general can have a visceral physiological effect on the viewer. A sculpture by Miró can push you into a fantasy dream-like state and inspire your imagination. The sight of a painting by Claude Monet can make you feel calm, peaceful and help you relax your daily worries away. A great piece of music from Wagner or Grieg can help fuel your workout and push you to PR on your lifts or running goals. Then you have a wonderfully entertaining documentary like 'Deli Man' and become instantly and insatiably hungry for a pastrami on rye sandwich with spicy mustard, a kosher dill pickle, and a heaping side of kettle chips.
The corner deli was once so commonplace that it felt like it was something every neighborhood had. You walk out your door, turn down the block and you'd be at the local deli and able to pick up a delicious sandwich or some soup and have a hearty meal. Many people aren't aware that these small local eateries are steeped in Jewish history and tradition. These are places that were built from the heart and desire of an individual or a family who loved to cook good food and give their friends and neighbors a warm and welcoming place to eat and relax. There was a time where in New York City alone there would be thousands of Jewish delicatessens. Today in the entirety of North America, there are little more than 150 traditioanl Jewish delis left. Through various cultural and economic causes, the local deli is slowly vanishing.
'Deli Man' takes a look at the owners of various delicatessens throughout the country, talks to some celebrities like Jerry Stiller and Larry King about their experiences going to deli's, and how it was a part of their lives growing up as well as their heritage. Primarily this film follows the third-generation deli man Ziggy (Dave) Gruber and his Huston, Texas based delicatessen that has been rated as one of the finest delis in the entire country. As we come to learn, running a deli is not an easy business. Not that one would take a restaurant or an eatery and the behind the scenes work that goes into preparing a meal for granted, but for Ziggy, running his deli is a round the clock job that affords him little time to relax, causes him great stress, and his personal life suffers for the love of his art. The man is so busy he takes business calls during his acupuncture appointments!
As we come to know and learn about Ziggy, his history as a world renowned chef who cooked for the Queen of England on several occasions, we also learn the history surrounding the birth of delicatessens. As people moved from Eastern Europe to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s they became nostalgic for the tastes and flavors of the old country. Since many of these people brought old family recipes and traditions with them to their new home, they soon learned that there was a market for this old world style cooking. What likely started as a neighbor cooking a simple dish for a close friend turned into someone opening a business to feed an entire neighborhood. Not long after, delicatessens had sprouted up everywhere - sometimes there would be a many as four or six independently owned deli's on a single block! Sadly as time moves forward, some of these traditions started disappearing and the delis began to vanish. But with new blood in the game like Ziggy, the local Jewish deli still thrives. It's a struggle to survive for many of these small business owners, but they do what they do because they love it. They're not in it for the money, they're in it for their customers, the friends they make, and the amazing food they prepare on a daily basis.
I don't want to leave this writeup on a down note. Considering how much of 'Deli Man' is spent informing the viewer of the hardships that go into running a deli, it's hard not to get a little bummed out at the thought of these small mom and pop type joints going under or the trade disappearing all together, but I will say that the vast majority of the documentary takes on an optimistic approach to the topic. While it may not all be sunshine and roses for Ziggy and the other delicatessen owners, there's something wonderful about seeing their tenacity and witnessing their drive to survive. In the face of mounting operational costs, they resist raising prices or cutting hours of operation or slashing their menus. They believe in tradition. Part of the reason a number of delis closed wasn't because of economics but because so many of the younger generation didn't want to continue the family business. That may seem like a sad note to end on, but much of this movie is punctuated by glimpses of hope and the fact that as time marches on old traditions become new again and the local deli remains a popular place to hang out.
I grew up in rural Michigan so if we wanted to go anywhere we had to drive the better part of twenty minutes. Going out to eat wasn't a big priority for us. Being of German/Hungarian/Danish descent, I grew up eating a lot of goulash, casseroles, and boiled roasts - so I never had strong food traditions beyond my Grandmother's homemade Thanksgiving pies. But I am thankful that one of my best friends growing up was Jewish and I learned to appreciate the great taste of pastrami and a nice spicy mustard. I've grown to have an unending love for a good deli. Living in the Denver area now, I'm grateful I have several traditional deli's within an easy commuting distance because right now I really need a good sandwich.
I wasn't sure what I was going to get when I started up 'Deli Man,' after all how much can one cover on such a topic? Evidently there is a lot to learn and appreciate about your local delicatessen. Each little joint is awash with history and tradition, and as evidenced by this documentary the owners probably would love to tell you all about their menu and what goes into preparing each meal. This was a fascinating film and while it did have its slower "sad" moments, it's a wonderful movie that ends with a sense of hope and happiness for the people interviewed throughout the film. Also this movie delivers on what I look for most in a documentary; I came away from this film feeling like I learned something. If you're going to give 'Deli Man' a look, I'd urge you to visit your local deli first and grab some take out, this is a great "foodie" movie and you're going to want to have something on hand to keep you from getting too hungry.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Deli Man' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Cohen Media Group and is presented on a Region A locked BD50 disc and is housed in a clear Blu-ray case. Inside the case are some more pictures from the film on the reverse side of the artwork as well as a booklet containing chapter notes, cast and crew credits, as well as more pictures of delicious-looking sandwiches.
Like most documentaries of this sort, 'Deli Man' suffers some slight image inconsistency issues that are likely caused by the use of many, many different types of cameras. While well detailed, sharp, with strong color stability, the image can get hit by some apparent haloing, banding and softness. A few scenes look like they were shot using early generation camera phones as whites are blown out and overall these scenes can look very unattractive. Thankfully the vast majority of the film looks clean and crisp and is without any major issue beyond the ones I mentioned. This is a good thing because there are a lot of close up shots of delicious food and the last thing this movie should do is make the amazing dishes that are being prepared look unappetizing. If this movie makes you salivate and possibly drool, don't feel bad, I think that's a natural side effect of the food photography.
Now, this is an area folks should be aware of before they start in on this movie. Included on this disc is a Dolby Digital 5.1 lossless track as well as a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. The disc is set to load automatically to the Dolby Digital track, so if that's not your cup of tea, make sure you hit the settings option on the main menu before you get rolling on this one. Side by side, both tracks do the jobs their assigned. Dialogue is crisp and clean and you never struggle to hear people speak - even when they're being interviewed during what looks like the lunch time rush. There is plenty of separation in the mix so dialogue, sound effects and the plucky music selection occupy plenty of space without overlapping onto each other. That said, this is also one of those movies that a surround sound mix really just doesn't add much flavor to the experience. There are long portions of the movie where the surrounds aren't even engaged so it makes this film a largely stereo/center channel affair. Not necessarily a bad thing, but worth noting.
Interviews: (HD 40:50) These excised interviews are great material. Various celebrities and big personalties talk about their favorite deli-going experiences and what it means to them. As great as the material is, it's understandable why it wasn't included since it doesn't move the main story along - but I'm still glad they included it here.
Ziggy Visits ACME Smoked Fish: (HD 5:54) It's a fun and interesting look at where Ziggy gets some of his supply and how these guys process smoked fish process.
Ziggy & Dennis Talk Deli: (HD 5:15) There's something awesome about two titans of the Deli world meeting and talking shop. My only gripe with this feature as that it feels like it could have been longer.
A Surprise…Meet Izzy: (HD 6:59) Who wouldn't want to see Ziggy's kid? I mean come on it's adorable.
Deli Woman: Jacqueline Canter: (HD 2:18) Jacqueline is one of the few woman delicatessen owners and managers operating "Canter's" outside of L.A. This is another feature I wash was longer, but it's still pretty good.
Sam Brummer's Story (HD 3:15) Sam founded Hobby's Deli and this interview is a bit sad, but also touching as he remembers his best of times.
Trailer: (HD 2:17) If the main movie is the entrée this trailer is a wonderful appetizer offering a nice treat of things to come.
'Deli Man' is just one of those nice documentaries that while it has its sadder or more somber moments, it is still a fascinating, endearing, and hunger-inducing watch. I had a blast with this one and it also stands as one of the few documentaries that I look forward to watching again and again. If you're a food lover or have a fondness for sandwiches, you should love watching 'Deli Man.' Cohen Media Group has done a great job putting this disc together offering a solid video presentation as well as two decent audio tracks to chose from. The extra interviews included can be a bit scanty, but otherwise they're a lot of fun to run through. I'm giving this one a solid recommended grade.