Love in the Time of Challah, Bruh
Review by Robert D. Patrick
A salvo of empirically pleasing images wash over the screen. Suddenly there is buttery meat, fine mustard, top shelf rye, and an honest serving of choleric wit. The Jewish deli, an institution for food lovers. You need an affable level of hubris and a set of working taste buds to hunker down behind the fingerprinted glass counter. Director Erik Greenberg Anjou’s straight-forward, obviously titled, Deli Man is an exploration of venerable delicatessens. A litany of talking heads plant themselves down on weathered cushions in storied delis. There’s something sexual about the inherent pleasure of consuming a good meal, one old gentleman professes. The elder statesmen of some of the most famous delis are interviewed, ad nauseam, about the charm of a good meal. And it’s hard to argue with them. There is no shortage of produce being hewed and minced. Meats are carved and flayed. Aprons spotted and flecked with wines and broths. The film is a kaleidoscope of gravy slathered knives. Deli Man is a sensory overload that would make any stomach feel insatiable.
Listening to comically inspired stories of ornery customers, through the groan-induced memories of men behind the counters, provides the perfect levity. In fact, most if not all of the anecdotes are informed, lined with humor, and crowned with bravado. Many au courant individuals are interviewed, but Anjou’s film is clearly about David “Ziggy” Gruber, owner of a delicatessen in Houston, Texas. Gruber’s amiable demeanor is tinged with snark (he gives plenty of tough love to his crew). Kind he is; amenable he is not. While many facts about quality meats and recipes are shown with a responsive and interesting eye for detail, Deli Man occasionally gets caught up in the kind of minutia that can kill the engine of a documentary. Scenes showing Gruber’s porous love life and illusive exercise habits are probably necessary for a full character profile, but they still feel interminably dull.
When Ziggy is not onscreen, we’re given historically fascinating information by other Jewish deli owners – and, in some cases, actors – who have seen the decades wade by. Larry King, for instance, fires off some acerbic phlegm toward delis with mediocre corned beef sandwiches. If you’ve never seen the former CNN host animated like a live wire slapping on a bed of water, here’s your chance. Meanwhile, author Jane Ziegelman, one of the documentary’s primary narrators, is as lifeless as a limp marionette. Her voice, paired with a particularly moribund delivery, makes me want to fall into a deep, disconsolate, coma of boredom. Imagine listening to the fan on an overheating computer – that’s Ziegelman’s lack of intonation. There is no way to pay attention to what she’s saying. The price of admission should come with a bucket of water to wake the viewer. Other than her droned out inflection, the rest of the interviewees are lively and rarely static (in one restaurant, if the owners don’t like you, expect your to-go container to leak like a sieve).
This is an expansive, thorough documentary that touches on everything from the meaning of Matzah ball soup to the changing climate of traditional, versus newly redefined, Jewish delis. If you’re a purist, you may want to drive your car into a swamp after seeing a particular delicatessen in San Francisco deep fry and deconstruct specific dishes (pastrami fries?!). Raspy, sun-baked television impresario Guy Fieri is probably traveling to the location by jet pack as I type this sentence. Deli Man is probably the best documentary that I will forget about this year, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out.