Monday, March 2, 2015

Feeding The Soul As Well As The Stomach

Every now and then an intelligent, intimate film in which food plays a crucial role catches me by surprise. In 2000, that film was Gurinder Chadha's poignant and insightful What's Cooking? The setup is simple: Four ethnically diverse families (Jewish, Latino, Vietnamese, and African American) gather to celebrate Thanksgiving in a suburb of Los Angeles. Their homes sit at the four corners of a quiet intersection. Despite the intense familial melodramas playing out in each house, when an emergency situation develops, the four families pour out of their homes and into the intersection, experiencing a rare moment of community.

One of the films featured in CAAMFest 2015 is Grace Lee's documentary, Off The Menu: Asian America. In it, the filmmaker examines the key role that food plays in some Asian-American communities. In Hawaii, she spends time with a family that fishes for octopus before visiting the MA'O organic farm community project (the Hawaiian "Mala Ai Opio" translates to "youth garden").

Formerly a self-sufficient region of Oahu, today's Waianae is more notable for homeless encampments and a high rate of poverty. Created by the Waianae Community Redevelopment Corporation, MA'O's college intern program is aimed at developing Waianae's next generation of leaders. Local high school graduates work on the farm growing fruits and vegetables (as well as selling produce at farmers' markets). They receive a monthly stipend while taking courses in community food systems, agriculture, and Hawaiian studies at a local community college.

By learning to interact with regular clients (which include local restaurants and health food stores), students develop the skills and confidence to understand how agriculture can play a major role in their adult lives.

Lee also visits the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek (a suburb of Milwaukee) where a weekly dining ritual has helped the community to heal from the attack by white supremacist Michael Page, who shot and killed six people and wounded four others on August 5, 2012.

Page's attack occurred as volunteers were in the temple's kitchen, preparing the weekly langar (a free vegetarian meal which is offered to members of the temple as well as visitors of any faith).

Women preparing the weekly langar at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin

Lee's visit not only demonstrates how the communal preparation, serving, and sharing of food strengthens a community, but also helps to remind viewers that, often, the consumption of food frequently occurs in a charitable rather than a commercial venue.

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First published in 1979, Mimi Sheraton's delightful cookbook entitled From My Mother's Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences offered heartwarming (and often very funny) descriptions of how food became the focus of many a Jew's life. The course description for The New School's 2014 offering entitled Jewish Food Through Song and Film reads as follows:
"This course offers students a taste of Eastern European and American Jewish culture through songs, films and personal narratives of food. We explore the Jewish experience and cultural and religious identity through foods that came to the United States by way of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Romania, and the Russian Pale of Settlement. Traditional foods and their modern-day incarnations guide our exploration of Ashkenazi Jewish identity, culture, and peoplehood. We translate and interpret Yiddish and Hebrew, decoding words and phrases that we encounter as we go from the Old World to the New, from the Pale to the sidewalks of the Lower East Side and the suburbs of Middle America."
From documentaries like The Sturgeon Queens to a desperate (and desperately funny) last minute YouTube appeal to save the Cafe Edison, Jewish food and the contributions of Jewish families to Jewish-American cuisine are little more than a click away.

Just as Asian cuisine has grown roots throughout America, Jewish food has found a place in popular culture. Whereas bagels once only came in simple flavors (plain, salted, poppy seed, onion), today one can find bagels in flavors ranging from cinnamon and jalapeno to blueberry and basil. A quick search of the Internet can yield recipes for numerous versions of gluten-free latkes as well as exotic treats such as chocolate-Nutella-halvah flavored hamantashen.

A new documentary by Erik Greenberg Anjou entitled Deli Man takes a look at the declining number of Jewish delicatessens in America and the people who work tirelessly to keep the tradition alive. Whereas, in 1931, New York City’s Department of Public Markets listed 1,550 kosher delicatessen stores and 150 kosher dairy restaurants, today there are approximately 21 kosher and non-kosher delis of repute in the entire city.

What makes Deli Man different from previous documentaries about delicatessen food is that the various restaurant owners talk freely about each other's businesses. Most are quite effusive in discussing the role a good delicatessen plays in keeping a Jewish community alive (whether through catering or enabling people to gorge themselves on monstrous sandwiches). To its credit, Deli Man does not limit its story to New York City but broadens its horizons to include delicatessens in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, and Houston.

Filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou with the irrepressible Fyvush Finkel

While the usual suspects (Larry King, Freddie Roman, Jerry Stiller, Michael Wex, and the ever ebullient Fyvush Finkel) are on hand to offer testimonials, the protagonist of the film is Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation deli man who, as the owner of Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston who cooks, nudges, worries, and hovers over his guests like a true balabosta.

When he was 18, Gruber enrolled in culinary school in London and worked with a young Gordon Ramsay. However, on the night he accompanied his father to the annual dinner of the Delicatessen Dealers’ Association of Greater New York that he saw his future.  As he recalls:
“I’ll never forget. I looked around the room and it was all 60- and 70-year old people. I said to myself: ‘Who is going to perpetuate our food if I don’t do it?’  That was my calling. The next day I went back to my dad and my uncle and I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this fancy-shmancy business, I’m going back into the delicatessen business.’”
Ziggy Gruber, owner of Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen in Houston

Although Gruber has never been able to duplicate his father's gravy recipe, he know how much some of the recipes and garnishes brought to America by Jews immigrating from Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Romania have impacted the life of American Jews. He recalls a time when his father made a simple recipe from the days of shtetl life that reminded people of the food their grandmothers used to serve and describes how people would come to the restaurant in limousines to purchase what was essentially peasant food.

Ziggy Gruber holds the trophy after winning
Houston's contest for the best chicken soup

Deli Man is a lot of fun to watch. Not only does it provide a solid sense of history and the role of food in Jewish communities, there are poignant moments (such as when visits a colleague who owns a smoked fish factory and marvels at how technology has changed the process of creating certain delicacies). One word of warning, however. Don't watch this film on an empty stomach. Here's the trailer:

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