Jewish Food class visits ‘deli maven’ for dinner

Jewish Food course at Kenny & Ziggy's
Ziggy Gruber addresses Jewish Food course at Kenny & Ziggy's
Ziggy Gruber addresses students in Joshua Furman's Jewish Food course at Kenny & Ziggy's.

The syllabus did promise dinner at a deli, after all.

Included among the coursework for Joshua Furman’s Jewish Food: Religion, Culture and Consumption from the Bible to Bagels is a screening of “Deli Man,” a documentary examining the state of the Jewish deli through the lens of Houston’s own Ziggy Gruber. Students in the class were required to write a paper on the film, making it all the more exciting to meet Gruber himself during an end-of-course dinner at his deli, Kenny & Ziggy’s.

“I'm a big believer in experiential learning, and it's great to be able to look at cookbooks and read about the history of the Jewish deli,” said Furman, associate director and lecturer in the Program in Jewish Studies. “But to go to Kenny & Ziggy's and to sit and break bread with Ziggy Gruber, the deli maven himself — for our students to have that opportunity — is just so special.”

Graduate student Madeleine Lyon
Madeleine Lyon, a Shepherd School of Music vocal performance student, studied the menu ahead of dinner.

At the head of a table laden with kishka, knishes and kasha varnishkes, Gruber told the students about the deli’s role in maintaining a connection with cultures and countries that can seem foreign to younger Americans.

A true old-school Jewish deli specializes in Yiddish cuisine, the food of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, but changing tastes and rising product costs have led to a nationwide disappearance of delis. Gone is the goulash, the classic whitefish salad, the comforting kreplach.

“When he talks about this food, it's not just a livelihood for him; it's about perpetuating a culture that is in danger,” Furman said.

Jewish Food class at Kenny & Ziggy's
Photos by Jeff Fitlow

From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, much has been made of the decline of the deli. There were over 1,500 delis in New York City alone in 1931, but by 2019 there were around 200 left in the entire country. As such, much has also been made of an old-school Jewish deli surviving and thriving in Houston.

“Ziggy really sees himself as one of the last guardians of this particular Jewish deli tradition in the United States, and to have that happening in Houston, Texas — in one of probably the most unlikely of places — is just wonderful,” Furman said.

“We live in an amazing, diverse, cosmopolitan city and any chance that I have as an instructor to take our students off campus and let them experience it for themselves, I know it's a night that they're never gonna forget.”