When advertising executive Sheldon Cohn got together with his friend and colleague Gary Wolfson, they’d often toss around ideas for movies they’d like to make.
“Once, we were throwing out ideas and Gary said: ‘My grandmother was from Eastern Europe and my sister always [wanted] her pickle recipe,’” Cohn recalls. But Grandma died without ever revealing how she made her pickles.
“We were just going back and forth in his den, and I remember him saying it, and a light bulb went off,” he says.
That was the beginning of “The Pickle Recipe,” which Cohn and Wolfson co-wrote and co-produced. It premieres in Washington on Nov. 4 at Landmark West End Circle.
On the face of it, the humor of “The Pickle Recipe” tells a Jewish story, but Cohn and Wolfson say they “don’t view it as a Jewish film. We view it as a comedy with Jewish characters.”
The plot relies on a stereotype that transcends culture: “No one does this like Grandma!”
In the case of Detroit party emcee Joey Miller (played by Jon Dore), no one makes pickles quite like his Grandma Rose, owner of Irv’s Deli. More tantalizing, though, are the big bucks he can score by selling her top-secret pickle recipe, which has brought Detroiters coming back to Irv’s for decades.
Joey is in desperate need of quick cash, $20,000 specifically. While emceeing a wedding, his equipment goes up in flames. Worse, his daughter’s bat mitzvah is one month away and Joey’s ex-wife is threatening to hire his competition.
And so begins a series of schemes by Joey to find out his grandmother’s secret to making a perfect pickle.
But the pickles are secondary to the film’s message, says Director Michael Manasseri.
“Ethnicity doesn’t matter. Pickles, meatballs, burritos, dumplings, whatever part of the world the dish and the family comes from, recipes and foods passed down from one generation to the next feed our senses and our souls and connect us,” he says.
The filmmakers say early showings of the film showed that non-Jews found Joey’s antics — and those of his shameless uncle, who knows a wealthy businessman that wants to buy the pickle recipe — hilarious.
In a phone interview from Michigan, Cohn says there was only one joke that non-Jewish audiences didn’t catch.
“They don’t understand the difference between Kiddush and Kaddish. That’s the one joke that in a non-Jewish audience, people are silent,” he says. (Kiddush is the blessing over wine. Kaddish is a prayer often said to remember the dead.)
But Lynn Cohen, who plays Grandma Rose, says the actors had to play the humor straight.
It’s not hard to find the laugh in Joey being doused with water after walking in on Rose making her pickles. Equally ridiculous is a non-Jewish man impersonating a rabbi to gain the trust of an elderly woman. But Cohen insists her goal in each scene was not to live for the punch line.
“If I was to do this role just thinking about the gags or laughs, there would be no film,” she says. “The story is funny. The situations are funny — but only because you take it seriously.”
Cohen said Rose reminded her of her own grandmother because both women were Eastern European immigrants.
“I know those women … very strong, very caring, their grandchildren can do wrong, and it’s their children who [they’re] the hardest on,” she says. “This breed of human being works till the day they die, and it’s something I relate to.”
The movie features one song performed by Dore. Rose has suffered a concussion and has forgotten her secret recipe. While tasting pickles, each one made slightly different than the one before it, Joey, Rose and her deli employees become demoralized after tasting dozens of (not so delectable) pickles.
That song was initially going to be Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” however, they couldn’t obtain the rights for the song, Sheldon Cohn says. So he and Wolfson wrote a rap song instead. The cast didn’t take to it.
“Thankfully, Jon Dore played guitar and in the morning the cast came up with that song” about Rose tasting pickles.
“Oh my God, the cast saved that scene.”