Bagels and Smoked Meat: Montreal’s Jewish Delicacies
Olivier Bauer is an associate professor at the Faculty of Theology and Sciences of Religions at the Université de Lausanne. Bauer is particularly interested in the relationship between food and religion.
Neither the Jewish baker in Vienna who in 1663 created a small bread ring (Beugel in German) in honour of the King of Poland Jan Sobieski, nor Aaron Saft, a Romanian immigrant who in 1884 opened the first corner bakery in Montreal, expected that they would overturn Montrealers’ eating habits. But over the course of the 20th century, bagel and smoked meat have become the iconic food of this Quebec metropolis. These are two typically Ashkenazi Jewish preparations and it is astonishing that they have become emblematic of a city where Jews are only a minority.
We’ll see “How” and “Why”, but let’s first look at “What”.
We all know what bagels are, a round piece of bread with a hole in the middle. But Montreal bagels are special, with a unique soft, delicate flavour. This is due as much to their ingredients – malt and eggs are added – as to how they are prepared – as a manual artisanal process, first boiled then baked in a wood-fired oven. They are sold plain, or sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds. You can buy them singly, though most people buy them by the dozen or half dozen. You can eat them there-and-then or order them to take out to eat later. But they don’t last long, as they dry out fast and lose their flavour. They are often sliced lengthwise and filled with cream cheese or smoked salmon. Apart from its great taste, a bagel fulfils a symbolic purpose: Its circular shape is evocative of God, infinity or eternity, and its hole reminds us that loss and emptiness are also part of life.
We know less, though, about smoked meat and smoked meat sandwiches. Smoked meat is very trendy in Montreal, historically enjoyed by Métis, Ashkenazi Jews, and the people of many Central European countries. It is prepared with pieces of Alberta beef seasoned with a super secret blend of spices – which we know includes at least coarse salt, crushed pepper, garlic, herbs and sugar – marinated for a week, smoked for many hours, and steamed before being thinly sliced, served on a plate or a slice of rye bread, preferably seasoned with mustard and with pickles on the side.
It’s when asking “Where” that we can answer “How”. Because the oldest delis such as the most typical and famous bagelries are found near Boulevard St-Laurent (“The Main” for Anglophiles). Far from a sleepy place, it was along this boulevard at the turn of the 20th century that Jewish immigrants set up home, first near the port, before heading north along the boulevard. And it was to offer workers in the processing industry – the Schmatte Business – cheap local food that the first delis and bagelries first sprang up: the Ontario British-American Delicatessen (founded in 1908 by Herman Rees Roth); the B. Krawitz Delicatessen on the corner of Duluth (between 1910 and 1912 by Ben and Fanny Krawitz); the Fairmount Bagel spanning two blocks (in 1919 by Isadore Schlafman), and Schwartz between Pins and Duluth (in 1828 by Reuben Schwartz). But, a sign of the intimate and deep ties between bagels and Judaism, bagelries reflected Jewish demographic changes: from Boulevard St-Laurent to Mile End, to Outremont, Ville-Mont-Royal, Ville Saint-Laurent, then to West Montreal: Côte-Saint-Luc, Hampstead, etc. But Montreal’s Jewish community would never have been enough to make bagels and smoked meat so iconic. It also needed a non-Jewish clientele, which developed in the late ’60s.
But let’s go back to St-Laurent! Apart from its welcoming ambiance, the boulevard is also a boundary. Administratively, it demarcates Montreal East from Montreal West. It is also – to a certain extent – the boundary between Francophile Montreal East and Anglophone Montreal West. The home of Montreal’s immigrants and Jews. Along St-Laurent, the Jewish community has often served as both a buffer and mediator – also sometimes as an outlet or scapegoat – between the two linguistic communities. It seems undeniable that the siting of bagelries and delis at the boundary of the two linguistic communities has participated in the success of bagels and smoked meat. While remaining Jewish food, they have managed to seduce both Francophiles and Anglophiles, even serving as a gastronomic bridge between the Christian majority and the Jewish minority.
Montreal has vaunted bagels and smoked meat as its iconic dishes. And if Montrealers like them, it’s obviously because they love how they taste. But it’s also because Montrealers love the places where they go to buy them, the delis and bagelries that are some of the oldest shops in the city, rare survivors of a past age and evocative of a wonderful nostalgia. Montreal is clearly proud of these two foods that blend and reflect the cultures that form the city’s fabric: European, North American, Jewish, Francophone and Anglophone. Adopted, adapted, Montreal bagels are similar to, but stand out from, Polish obwarzanek dough rings and New York bagels, and Montreal-style smoked meat puts its own twist on classic smoked-meat recipes.
There aren’t that many heritage elements that everyone can claim as their own.
To learn more:
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Bauer, O. (2015). « Le bagel, la smoked meat, les bageleries et les délis sont une part du patrimoine culinaire de Montréal ». Papyrus :Dépôt institutionnel numérique de l’Université de Montréal, 20 pages. Referenced June 27, 2016 at http://hdl.handle.net/1866/12213
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King, J. (2002). Les Juifs de Montréal : trois siècles de parcours exceptionnels. Outremont, Québec : Carte blanche.
Nash, A. (2011). « Smoke and Mirrors? Montreal Smoked Meat and the Creation of Tradition ». Dans H. Saberi (dir.), Cured, fermented and smoked foods: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2010 (p. 211-220). Totnes, England: Prospect Books.
Pinsky, M. (sans date). « Smoked Meat – Schwartz’s (Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen) ». Museum of Jewish Montreal. Referenced June 27, 2016 at http://imjm.ca/location/2364
Sax, D. (2009). Save the deli: in search of perfect pastrami, crusty rye and the heart of Jewish delicatessen. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.