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Every year, in the days leading up to Passover, Ziggy Gruber makes up to 1,500 pounds of charoset. For comparison, my mom will make no more than a pound of the chopped fruit and nut mix, and there will be some left over. But when has Gruber ever done anything on a small scale?
David, who goes by Ziggy, is a third-generation deli man. His grandfather, Max, arrived in New York via Budapest at the turn of the century. He found work in delis across the city until 1927 when he opened his own, the Rialto Deli, with his brothers-in-law. The Rialto, they claim, was the first deli to open its doors on Broadway, just two years before the start of the Great Depression. Amidst the anguish of the era, the Rialto thrived, serving the likes of Ethel Merman and the Marx brothers. All three of them. Decades later, Ziggy’s father opened his own deli, on Madison Avenue and called it Genard’s. Once Ziggy came around, the family had moved, shuttered its prospects in the city, and opened a deli in decidedly quieter Spring Valley, New York.
Ziggy never really stood a chance: By the age of eight, his grandfather was pawning him off to uncles and friends, sending him to caterings, scheduling him behind the counter. As Ziggy would say, he was born to be a deli man. Fast forward a stint at Le Cordon Bleu in London and a few years spent cooking in some of the city’s premiere kitchens and Ziggy returned to the U.S. to open a deli of his own. This time on the opposite coast.
He opened Ziggy G’s in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard in 1990, but what started out a success soon soured after a dispute with a landlord that forced Gruber to close the place and return to his native New York. It wasn’t until 1999 that a family friend, fellow deli owner, and restaurant broker called Gruber with a proposition. Come meet this guy. His name’s Kenny and he’s got a dream to open a Jewish deli in the heart of—of all places—Texas. Kenny & Ziggy’s opened in Houston later that year. Since, they’ve been featured on Guy Fieri’s exploration of all things epic, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and been at the center of a 2015 documentary, aptly titled Deli Man.
To enter Kenny & Ziggy’s is to enter pandemonium manifest. It’s 7,500 square feet and vivacious, the walls are shellacked with photo frames—some are filled with sketched caricatures of celebrities, others with photos of celebrities, posing jovially with the deli’s staff and owners. The tables are always, always full. A rotating case of cakes and pies greets you at the front door. For Jews in Houston, it’s an institution. For everyone else, it’s an institution as well.
Most things in Houston are big and heavily air conditioned. Kenny & Ziggy’s is no exception. The menu, like any good Jewish place of eating, is a small novel and the portions are the kind that parents warn kids to split: mile-high reubens and knishes for days, mounds of whitefish bigger than the friendliest of ice cream scoops.
In the days leading up to Passover, the kitchen fields an overwhelming swell of orders. Particularly for their charoset. The sweet and fruity chutney is peak Passover food, and like everything else on the seder plate, is imbued with meaning. It represents the mortar that the Jews, enslaved in Egypt, used to build and layer bricks. At its most basic, charoset is but fruit and nuts, chopped into a semi cohesive paste. At its most flourished, it offers a myriad of interpretations. It can be softened with Manischewitz or brightened with dates, made crunchier with bits of pistachio or silkened with jam. Like Judaism, charoset bends to the whims of local traditions. In Egypt, they might forgo apples and opt instead for dates and raisins as a fruity base; in Italy, some add chestnuts. It’s a malleable formula that we eat on Passover, with a bit of horseradish, to remember that what is sweet must always come accompanied by that which is bitter.
Ziggy’s recipe for charoset was given to him by his Hungarian grandfather, the original deli man. It’s an Ashkenazi recipe—with apples and cinnamons, bound by apricot jam and blackberry wine—that Ziggy and his kitchen staff will spend the next few days preparing by the truckload, literally. Each year the deli sends out two refrigerated semitrucks worth of the sticky spread to families across Houston. If you’re in their orbit, why not order from the Ziggy himself? For those a bit further away from the delivery zone, feel free to make some yourself.
- 4 cups Golden Delicious apples, hand chopped
- 1 cup golden raisins
- 3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 3/4 cup Manischewitz Blackberry Wine
- 3/4 cup smooth apricot jam
- 2 cups chopped walnuts
- 1 pinch sugar, plus more to taste
How do you charoset? Tell us about your recipe in the comments below.