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Smoked meat: a sellout?

Angus Sharpe bites into Montreal’s most distinctive delicacy

Smoked meat is a bit of a cult, if you ask me. On my first morning here in Montreal, I walked past these tiny stores with lines snaking out the door. This didn’t seem too odd at first, but, when they hadn’t subsided a week later, I decided to ask someone about them. The reponse, a eulogy about the supernatural qualities of the “original smoked meat sandwich” left me skeptical. However, after the inevitable curiosity visit, and my anointment in an uber-meaty and underbreaded baptism, I prostrated myself at the foot of its altar, and bathed in the mustardy glow. To stretch this metaphor way too far, I committed myself to the clergy, preaching forth to the unenlightened, “You’re coming to Montreal? You must try the smoked meat. It’s divine!”

This most macho of delicacies is so symbolic of Montreal that it’s oldest surviving and most sanctified exponent, Schwartz’s on Saint-Laurent, takes a place of honour in our city’s Lonely Planet guidebook. Yes, it’s the first image to greet your gaze upon turning page one. The very first part of this city that some tourists will see is not, say, an aerial panorama of Place Des Arts, swarming with tiny revelers bathed in the lights from some world renowned Jazz Festival; it’s not the Bell Centre, a sold out crowd erupting while some bearded bruiser starts throwing fists; it’s not even a gleaming, glistening, coronary baiting zoom shot of a La Banquise poutine. No, what we have is the inside of Schwartz’s Hebrew Deli. More accurately, it’s lots of old fashioned folks – cause smoked meat is so damn old – sitting on stools, backs to the camera hunched over something… Nope, can’t tell you what exactly. Whatever it is though, they are totally into it.

So, what is all this? And where did it come from? Wikipedia supplies various creation myths, but ultimately calls it an “uncertain and likely unresolvable” mystery. Some say one Herman Rees Roth came over from New York in 1908 and opened his British American Delicatessen Store. Other sources point to Romanian migrant Aaron Sanft, who braved the Atlantic in 1884 and founded Montreal’s first kosher butcher shop. Better known is the tale of Ben Kravitz. He reached Montreal in 1899 “with fifteen dollars and a bullet wound in his heel courtesy of a Polish border guard” and initially sold smoked meat, prepared in the style of farmers from his native Lithuania, from his wife’s fruit stand. And then there’s Levi Katz, a Latvian cow whisperer. Banished from his village following shadowy experimentation in bestiality, Katz washed up in the New World on a plank of wood with nothing but the clothes on his back and an ancient recipe tattooed to his inner thigh. That last one obviously isn’t true, but you get the idea.

The whole shtick is a heavily romanticized elaboration on the basic facts: smoked meat is a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Euro-Jewish thing, probably Romanian. It’s also supposed to be a family affair – a small diner with crowded chrome booths and menus on the wall next to photos of the storefront changing over time. For many slightly older Montrealers, Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant was and will always be the archetype. Founded by the aforementioned Mr. Kravitz, Ben’s closed in 2006 two years short of its centenary under the ownership of his grandson, Eliot. It was a rather sad end, awash with union disputes and a waning fanbase disillusioned by rising prices and shrinking portions, while across town the enemy, Schwartz’s, seemed evergreen.

But the very fact that smoked meat is so renowned – the whole first page Lonely Planet factor, – means one thing: it’s been widely successful, and, with success, comes expansion from the family business blueprint, not to mention a predictable local backlash. So over a century on from its vague genesis, where does the Montreal smoked meat restaurant stand today?

For the less enchanting examples, head downtown, where Dunn’s Famous has one of its six Quebec branches – with a seventh coming to Vancouver soon. Moved from its legendary spot on Ste. Catherine to the current haunt on Metcalfe, the focus has slipped quietly away from smoked meat to the more homogenized feel of a North American steakhouse. But it’s not the Hard Rock Cafe by any stretch of your cynical imagination. Indeed, it’s still owned by the founding family, though the all singing, all dancing website – complete with TV spots featuring CGI mascot “Dillon Dunn” the dill pickle cowboy – is a far cry from the ideal, and is wholly geared toward the dreaded F-word: franchise. While we’re here, if you would like to start your own Dunn’s Famous restaurant – and why the hell not – please visit and apply online. Just make sure you have some idea on how you will “create a strong market presence for the brand,” as they so honestly put it.

Admittedly, it’s very easy, and pretty bitchy, to complain about a family business done well. But then, just think about the scene inside Schwartz’s. It’s so fantastically functional, isn’t it? There’s no need for any glossy trimmings, and most people don’t even look at the menu anyway. If the tourist masses and inflated reputation put you off, however, then head up to Outremont and the sleepier Lester’s Deli. Another pillar of the old school, Lester’s has been a mere sixty years at its current address on Bernard. It maintains all of the comfy charm and warm hospitality that my nostalgic mind impresses upon those pioneering restaurants of the early twentieth century. Plus, it features a near offensive amount of meat on display to satisfy those carnivorous founding fathers, Messieurs Roth, Sanft, Kravitz and, of course, Katz.

A friend from Ottawa, when I asked if she had any memories of old school places such as Ben’s, warmly recalled family trips to Montreal, stopping off for some smoked meat because it was “unlike anything we had at home.” That’s the crux; there are few things more Montreal than smoked meat, and how brilliant, if a little wishful, for that to remain the case. So, if you know of a small smoked meat place near you, then go along and support that little bit of meaty Montreal culture. Here ends my well-seasoned sermon for today. Amen.