Pastrami on wry with the Texan macher keeping deli culture alive
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Pastrami on wry with the Texan macher keeping deli culture alive

Premiering this week, a new documentary delving into the Jewish delicatessen experience features Houston 'purist' Ziggy Gruber

Deli Man Ziggy Gruber is featured in Erik Greenberg Anjou's documentary about the culture of Jewish delicatessens. (Cohen Media Group)
Deli Man Ziggy Gruber is featured in Erik Greenberg Anjou's documentary about the culture of Jewish delicatessens. (Cohen Media Group)

NEW YORK — Loosen your belts, the Deli Man is coming.

Erik Greenberg Anjou’s forthcoming documentary about the dying (but perhaps reviving!) culture of Jewish delicatessens is a meal with many courses. Part of it is history, about the links found in taste and smell to an Old Country that exists only in the memories of our elders. But another part is more celebratory, as today’s chefs search for a way to honor the past while still eyeing the future.

Among the more charismatic figures in the film is Ziggy Gruber, a macher in the Houston, Texas Jewish community and one of the more “purist” figures detailed in the movie. “Since he’s been a little kid, he’s been an 80 year-old Jew” is how Gruber is described in the trailer. His quest to preserve and promote old schul recipes is something of the spine of Anjou’s film.

Naturally, when it came time to do some promotion, the distribution company thought nothing of schlepping Ziggy up to New York City to kibbitz and fress at Ben’s Kosher Deli in Manhattan’s Garment Center.

My conversation with him was very food-focused, but that could be because I had my eye on a giant plate of rugelach mere inches away. As you can see, my first question to the star of “Deli Man” was entirely professional. You’ll also notice that the longer Ziggy talks, the more Yiddish he uses.

What, no Black & White cookies here?

[Shrug.]

What’s the origin of the Black & White?

Jews don’t like to waste anything, to throw out anything. Yiddische bakers made a thing called Wonder Cake, which was a mix. Some guy probably had some extra mix on the side, and he said, “Hmm. I don’t want to get rid of it. Oh, I know what I’m going to do.” So he scooped it out and laid it flat, and he said, “Ehh, we’ll ice it like a cupcake and we’ll put black and white onto it,” and bang. That’s how everyone got rid of all of the leftover batter. That’s how they got it, and that’s how it developed.

But we don’t know who this was. Like they know, for example, who the first guy to put ice cream in a waffle cone was. That’s, like, the World’s Fair, blah blah blah. We don’t know the first guy to make a black and white?

We don’t know. I mean, it might be some guy named Boris Schmiel somewhere around the corner, but we just have no idea who this person is. You know, it’s like the egg cream. Everyone takes credit — was it invented in Brooklyn by Max Auster? Was it done by the Gem Spa over on St. Mark’s Place? Who knows?

So I ask you, a well-intentioned goy sees the word “delicatessen”; they think, “Ahh, sandwiches.” What do you say to that person to say, “No, no, no, this is not just a sandwich — let me explain to you what delicatessen is, the misconception you have”?

“Delicatessen” is a word which means “delicate eating,” basically, in German or Yiddish. When I first came to Houston, that was the perception — that we were just sandwiches. But over time, we’ve educated the customers that there are a lot of good-tasting things on the menu, such as Hungarian goulash, or some nice stuffed cabbage, or some pierogis. Or some latkes, or some blintzes. Nice pot roast. Nice stuffed veal chop. It’s an education.

Publicity poster for documentary film featuring famous faces from New York Jewry 'Deli Man' (courtesy Cohen Media Group)
Publicity poster for documentary film featuring famous faces from New York Jewry ‘Deli Man’ (courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Yiddische people, we were immersed in this, so we understand it a little bit more. A lot of the younger people, maybe not so much, because they’ve kind of strayed a little bit, but I think they’re starting to come back. You know, good food is good food.

We try to educate. I invite all of the kids in the Hebrew schools to come in. I make every old-school Yiddische dish, from kasha varnishkes to kugel, you name it. Fricassee with the pipiks, they really dig it up and love it. And then what do they do? The kids are coming in. In my dining room, compared to a lot of dining rooms, you see kids eating kishke. You see kids having some fricassee and some goulash, and you have people having a nice Rumanian steak, and all that. It’s an outreach education.

When you’re here in New York, where do you like to go?

Every place has its own signature items. But it’s a lot different than it was. When I was in New York when I was a kid, there were a million and one delicatessen stores. There were a million and one Jewish bakeries. There were a million and one kosher butchers. There was a lot more Yiddishness. Try finding a kosher bakery today. Very few and far between. But, you go to Katz’s and get a nice pastrami sandwich. You go to 2nd Ave Deli, you get some great stuff like stuffed cabbage or chopped liver. Carnegie has got a nice cheesecake.

And then there’s the shtick at Sammy’s Roumanian.

Oh, Sammy’s has all the shtick, and you order a nice vodka in a block of ice.

I love that place, but last time I was there, I’m leaving, putting on my coat, and through that low ceiling I could swear I heard some skittering . . .

Oy! Well, it’s New York City.

Could happen at the Four Seasons!

In New York? Every single restaurant that you patronize, they have rats. It’s a fact of life. Forget about it. Those Lower East Side rats, they’ve been there for God knows, 200 years? They probably were there when my grandmother was there!

Ziggy Gruber, a macher in the Houston, Texas Jewish community, is one of the more 'purist' figures detailed in the movie. (courtesy Cohen Media Group)
Ziggy Gruber, a macher in the Houston, Texas Jewish community, is one of the more ‘purist’ figures detailed in the movie. (courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Rapid-fire question: Bowl of pickles comes: do you grab the half-sour or the full-sour?

I like full-sour pickles.

Is there anything that isn’t made better by pickling?

No. I mean, I like anything cured or smoked. Anything. That’s me. You know, some people roast a tongue — that’s not pickled, and I prefer pickled tongue over a roasted tongue, any day.

What’s the difference between corned beef and pastrami? In a realistic but also in a philosophical sense.

I’m a pastrami eater myself, personally. I happen to like pastrami better. Because I like the extra step, and I like the smokiness. That’s me. Basically, pastrami is from the plate; corned beef is from the brisket, which is from the shoulder. They’re both cured for about forty-five days in the same style of brine. So now you have corned beef. You now go up an extra process where you basically take the pastrami, you roll it up in peppercorns and juniper berries and all kinds of spices, and then you smoke it for a long time, for about three or four hours. And I just like that smokiness.

So much of the film is about your love for the food because of your family, your heritage, your grandfather. What I find interesting is that you’ve been to Israel –

I got bar mitzvahed there!

So you go to Israel and — you were a kid — you’re like, “Wait, the food’s all different. What’s going on here? This Middle Eastern style.” Do you have any connection to that kind of food as well?

‘I’ve been cooking Ashkenazic food all of my life’

Do I have a connection to that food? I’ve been cooking Ashkenazic food all of my life. But as you know, every Jewish kid goes on Birthright Israel. So I would definitely say the taste, even in Israel — in Israel, when they first opened up, there were a million and one Hungarian-Rumanian restaurants. Today, you can’t find any of them.

Everything is more Middle Eastern and more of the new Israeli cuisine kind of stuff, like Ottolenghi. Yotam Ottolenghi does all this great stuff with a lot of vegetables and fresh dips and everything like that. So in my store I started making shakshouka in the store. And I’ve got to tell you, I made it fifty times — I wanted it perfect, because with me, in any dish I do, I want it to be authentic, and I don’t want anyone saying, “Well, I’ve had better somewhere else.” Because this is not my shtick.

You’re in Houston, so you’re kind of the only game in town for a lot of this. You have to come correct.

Right. I don’t care if you’re from Tel Aviv and you’re visiting a relative, I want them to taste it and go, “You know, this is the best shakshouka I’ve ever had.” So I invited the Israeli consulate there, and I invited a lot of people from AIPAC to come and try it.

The best crowning of my achievement was, there were three chefs from Israel visiting that are very well-known. They did an exhibition at the JCC in Houston. And they came over, and they loved all my Ashkenazic food — they said, “Listen, you’ve got to open one of these on the Dizengoff because we don’t have anything like this.” But I said, “Will you taste my shakshouka and tell me I did it right?” And I said, “I will not be offended if I didn’t do it right.” So they went in and they flipped out for it. They loved it. So I’ve been doing the shakshouka.

‘I do have my customers that eat with me three or four times a week, so I have to constantly come up with new stuff so that they’re not eating the same shtick all the time’

Also, last time I was here in New York — I always try to go and try other restaurants to see, maybe there’s something I can do. And the trend is not so much Ashkenazi food — even the Orthodox — it’s doing more of this. I went to Balaboosta, and I tasted this Moroccan curry with all this fish. I thought it was a fabulous dish. So, I mean, I’m a very good cook and I can figure it all out, and I knocked off that exact same flavor profile and I made that curry, and I sell that on a bed of Israeli couscous for a special in the deli. And that went pretty well. So you do have to evolve a little bit.

I do have my customers that eat with me three or four times a week, so I have to constantly come up with new stuff so that they’re not eating the same shtick all the time.

You’re a man of the world; I’m sure you have friends of other ethnic backgrounds. Food is important in every culture. Do you have a friend who is, like, the Italian version of you, the Chinese version of you, who is perfecting the classic cuisine but also expanding on representing it in a certain way?

Yes, my friend Dimitri Fetokakis owns a place called Niko Niko’s, which is a Greek restaurant. It’s fabulous. And then my friend Arturo Boada, who is Italian and Colombian at the same time — he cooks fabulous Italian stuff, absolutely. We all have breakfast every Thursday or Friday at my store, and I tell you, it’s just laughing and laughing.

I see this as the beginning of the Super Friends of ethnic cooking — you need a few more, and then you can conquer the world. Do they have the same attitude as you or is it a little different with Jews due to the history? Part of what I love about the film, and what it gets right, is that it presents the food as a link to a world lost to history. You can go back to Italy; you can’t go back to the shtetl in Hungary. It doesn’t exist.

‘We’re ethnic people, so we’re proud of our ethnicity, and we’re trying to all continue with great food’

They are very proud of their heritage like I’m proud of my heritage, and my friend Dimitri is very active, like I am in the Houston Jewish community, to perpetuate our culture and everything else like that. He’s very active in the Greek community, which is like the Jewish community — very tight. And the same with Arturo with the Italian community. We’re ethnic people, so we’re proud of our ethnicity, and we’re trying to all continue with great food.

This film gets very personal, about your love life, your trip to Budapest and your ceremony at the Dohány Synagogue.

Oh, [the Dohány Synagogue is] gorgeous. And Cantor Mendelson — we did a version of the shiva brochas that hadn’t been done in sixty years in Europe, the Mordecai Hershman version of the shiva brochas. It is the most amazing thing to see. It’s a 45-minute service, and Frank London was playing the horn and we had a choir and an organ. The rabbi there said they hadn’t seen anything like it since probably before the war. And it’s funny — even though it’s a very small community in Hungary, when we got married, there was no air conditioning in that synagogue, so they opened up all the doors, and all of a sudden the organ starts playing — everyone’s like, “What the hell is going on over at the synagogue?” Everyone in the Jewish quarter poured out, and they’re playing the whole thing, and when we walked out of the synagogue, we got a standing ovation in the streets of Hungary.

That’s amazing. It’s a beautiful, beautiful spot. [Sips can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray.] Hey, this Cel-Ray, or Celery Tonic as my grandfather called it. Have they changed the formula? It tastes a lot sweeter now than it used to.

You know what it is? Most people used to drink the Diet Cel-Ray, the one that was in the yellow can. They’re very stupid — this is what happens when you have an MBA in an ivory tower over there. They come in and say, “You know what, we can’t make two celery sodas, so we’re going to cut out the Diet Cel-Ray.” They were stupid; they should have cut out the regular Cel-Ray and kept the Diet Cel-Ray. Because who drinks celery soda most of the time?

Old Jews.

Old Jews, right! Most of them are diabetic anyway, and they’re living in, probably, Century Village. So the reality is, why did you do this to these poor people?

The Times of Israel film maven and deli man Ziggy Gruber kibbitz over Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray. (courtesy Jordan Hoffman)
The Times of Israel film maven and deli man Ziggy Gruber kibbitz over Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray. (courtesy Jordan Hoffman)

I have one of these maybe two or three times a year, and I crack it open, I sniff it, and I go, “Ahh, it smells so good,” and I drink it and I go, “It’s too sweet. It’s not what it used to be.” It used to be a little gross. It should be a little gross, I feel.

Maybe when you got older, your tastes evolved. It’s the Jewish Fresca. Thing is, I still think it complements pastrami better than anything.

It’s like a wine pairing.

Yep.

As a Dr. Brown’s sommelier, if you just have a plain pastrami and rye sandwich, which Dr. Brown’s goes with that?

I wouldn’t have Cream with it — my first choice would be either a Cel-Ray or a Black Cherry. For corned beef, I would go with the Cream.

When you have the pastrami sandwich, do you put a little mustard on it, or a little Russian dressing?

For pastrami I like mustard.

Okay, so where do you use Russian dressing?

You know, it depends. I’ve got to be in the mood. Sometimes if I make a combination sandwich, like a turkey and pastrami, I would dress it with Russian and cole slaw.

What is your philosophy with regard to the Reuben sandwich? I know it’s not kosher, but …

‘It’s a fargenign amount of Reubens’

At Kenny & Ziggy’s, because we’re non-kosher, we sell a lot of Reubens. Let me tell you. It’s a fargenign amount of Reubens. But look, what do I think? The Reuben, obviously, is very traditional New York — again, we were talking about, “Where did the egg cream come from?” Everyone’s taking credit. You know, they said Arnold Reuben at Reuben’s. Some guy said in the middle of Kansas City, they were at a club and they were doing something like that. Who knows what the real — nobody knows what the geschäft is.

Where do you draw the line in kosher-style deli?

In our store we do serve some pork products. That we do. There’s shrimp in there. When I say pork products, we only carry, like, bacon. But for people that don’t want that, I have pastrami bacon that I serve in the store as well. Even though we’re a non-kosher store, I carry some kosher meat — even though we don’t change the slicers or the knives.

So you clearly like to talk; you’re not afraid of cameras? But making a documentary film, it’s a pain in the ass. Were there times when you just wanted to turn to these guys and say, “Get your camera out of here; not today”?

Nah, they were very unobtrusive. The reality is, Kenny & Ziggy’s is a machine, and it’s a very busy place, and we just put our head down. I mean, he came in the middle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and he was filming us during both holidays. And we just had to continue, because the reality is, what’s more important, him or getting a clean plate for Mrs. Goldberg? We don’t want to hear anything from Mrs. Goldberg. Listen, everyone’s yontif has to be perfect. You can’t have anything go wrong. So he didn’t bother us, we continued, and we felt like he was never there.

“Deli Man” begins its theatrical run in Florida and Arizona on February 27, debuting in New York City and Los Angeles on March 6. Check the official site for times in your area.

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