Eating Jewish: Montreal Smoked Meat
The debate over the smoked meat of Montreal and the pastrami of New York continues to elicit strong opinions, with ardent supporters on each side. A quick search on Google reveals numerous magazine articles and blog posts comparing the two. However, I should mention from the outset that I’m not here to do that or say which one is better. I’ve never eaten pastrami (I do intend to rectify that on my next visit to New York) so a comparison of the two isn’t possible.
Rather, what I want to do in this post is to discuss smoked meat in Montreal, a dish that came to this city with members of the Jewish community and has since become a food icon of Montreal. It has become such an integral part of the food landscape of this city that it can be found on menus in numerous restaurants. Some of the most famous and well-known purveyors of smoked meat in the city include Snowdon Deli, the Main, Lester’s Deli, Dunn’s and Schwartz’s. Among these, Schwartz’s is the restaurant that is the most widely known with a book, a film and even a musical dedicated to it. So it is here that I decided to do a little a bit of my own “research” (i.e eating a lot of smoked meat) for this post.
The restaurant is located on St-Laurent, also known as the Main, which happens to be the street that divides the city between East and West. Schwartz’s has been in the same location since it was opened in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, and the interior of the restaurant hasn’t changed all that much either. It consists of a long and narrow white tiled room with long tables running down its length. One wall is filled with the many articles and reviews that have been written about it throughout its long history. On the other side there is a counter at which customers can sit, behind which the magic that is their smoked meat sandwich happens.
Their smoked meat is prepared using the same recipe that was used by Reuben Schwartz and consists of rubbing briskets with a blend of spices usually made up of salt, pepper, garlic and paprika, among other things, and then letting them marinate for approximately 10 days. Following this, the briskets are smoked for several hours and then they are steamed for another three hours until the meat is almost falling apart. Only then is it ready to be cut by hand and served to hungry customers. The result is tender meat that is dark pink with a marbling of fat throughout that easily comes apart at the touch of a fork. A bite of smoked meat will reveal a flavor that is slightly spicy from the mixture of spices the meat was marinated in, with a touch of saltiness, all undercut by the glistening buttery fat. Schwartz’s has a small menu on which there are only a few other things to order apart from smoked meat, but a classic order at this deli consists of a smoked meat sandwich (order the meat medium or fatty, but not lean) in which a huge stack of meat is sandwiched between two slices of rye bread that have been spread with mustard, as well as French fries, a pickle and a black cherry coke.
Not only is Schwartz’s a Montreal icon but it also belongs to the long tradition of delicatessens that have been so integral to the North American Jewish community. As explained by Gil Marks in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, for the many Jewish immigrants who found themselves in a new and foreign country, delicatessens offered a place where they could purchase kosher food that was familiar and satisfying. “Patrons not only came for takeout, but also stayed to schmooze.” Although it may not only serve the Jewish community today, Schwartz’s continues to uphold the important purpose of offering its customers a taste of the food traditions of the Romanian Jewish community. At the same time, it also continues to serve as an anchor to the Jewish community of Eastern Europe for some, while being a connection to the city of Montreal for others. Either way, it is an important tradition to uphold and something that Montreal native Noah Bernamoff understood when he brought a taste of Montreal to Brooklyn and opened Mile End delicatessen.
This is most definitely a food tradition that will continue to endure for a long time to come, if the lines that form outside Schwartz’s are any indication, and one that I will gladly continue to partake of. Have any of you had the chance to taste some Montreal smoked meat? If so, what did you think?