Eating My Way Through Jewish Montreal


Say hello to the Jewish version of a Big Mac.
Smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's Deli.
Photo courtesy of Time-Crunched Traveler.

My husband, David, eats no fast food of any kind. He watches his weight and diet, and works out constantly. But on a recent visit to Montreal, he wondered if I might like to visit Schwartz's Deli -- home of the famous Montreal smoked meat sandwich?

This seemed an odd suggestion for him. The smoked meat -- as I would learn -- is made from a "whole brisket" (which refers to the cut with the big block of fat attached). It's marinated  in a dry-rub of spices for more than a week and smoked for a whole day. Just before serving, the cured meat is resuscitiated in a steam bath -- a "shvitz" if you will. It's then sliced and served between two very soft slices of processed rye bread with an obligatory squirt of yellow mustard. (They use this type of squishy bread, I'd later realize, to serve as a sponge for the greasy drippings from the meat.) In short, it's kind of a Jewish Big Mac -- but with more calories. 

"Is this your inner Ashkenazy coming out?" I asked David. While he feigned indifference, it was clear he desperately wanted to go to Schwartz's -- with the pretense that I, as a tourist, had never been.

By the time we arrived at the deli -- which sits in the center of the old Jewish neighborhood of the city's historic Mile End district -- there was already a line of 20 people or so waiting to go in. I noticed the business across the street from Schwartz's, one not usually mentioned in reviews: a tombstone factory. "So first we go in here," I said to my husband, nodding at the deli, "and then we end up over there?"

Schwartz's Deli. By Quebec law, there
can be no English language on signs. 

"Not immediately." I'd never seen David so willing to line up patiently for food. When it came our turn for a table, he looked at me and asked, "So are you going to be a champion?"

By champion, he meant would I eat the whole Schwartz's meal: the sandwich, which contained maybe 8 ounces of fatty meat, with its traditional sides of vinegary cole slaw, oil-soaked French fries, and a pickle. I made no promises.

We took our seats inside: the decor seems unchanged since it opened 83-years-ago, apparently under the ownership of a notorious jerk named Reuben Schwartz. (Funnily his first name is also the name of a sandwich). Schwartz would go bankrupt in 1971, but be saved by a concert violinst named Maurice Zbriger, with dowry money smuggled into the country in a violin case. More recently (2012), the deli was bought -- improbably -- by Celine Dion and her husband Rene, in partnership with others. While the deli was never Kosher, it now no longer remains "Hebraique" except in name and custom. 

But for sure the sandwich remains the same. I tried to deconstruct my sandwich with a fork, with the thinking that if I ate it this way, I wouldn't eat so much of it. But that went against the point of enjoying the meat in conjunction with the juice-soaked bread and pleasant sharpness of the yellow mustard.

David watched closely for my reaction. "It's ... it's ..." I said through a mouthful, "crazy delicious." I guess I am an Ashkenazy too. But who wouldn't be if this was the regular diet?

In the end, I can't say I was a champion -- but we did end up walking for a good two hours afterwards, bemoaning the amount of food we'd just ingested.

My American readers might wonder what is the difference between Montreal-style smoked meat and its cousin to the south, the pastrami sandwich that you find at the Carnegie Deli or Katz's in New York. According to this charming and interesting article on the origins of pastrami, the difference lies both in the cut and the seasonings. Pastrami is made from an even fattier part of the cow -- known as the "navel," right under the belly. Pastrami is cured with just a few spices -- generally coriander, black pepper and sugar -- whereas Schwartz's smoked meat is flavored with a "secret mixture" of 10 spices.  

For this week's Shabbat recipe, however -- and after some internet detective work -- I managed to track down both the Schwartz's method for making the smoked meat as well as a recipe for the spices. If you have a smoker, it's suprisingly easy to make -- although you'll have to plan for the meal at least a week in advance. You will find the combined recipe here at Fig Tree & Vine. Short of going to Montreal, it's as close as you'll get to a Schwartz's sandwich.


How do I buy your recipe for swartz s montreal smokemeat

On a recent hockey sojourn from Wash. DC to Montréal, I was able to steer my troop of hungry hockey nerds, not to Schwartz’s but to Reuben’s. Even though Reuben’s gets poorer ratings than Schwartz’s, the smoked meat sandwich was a true thing of beauty. It made New York corned beef taste like poison.

I would like to purchase the recepe on how to produce a Montreal smoked brisket

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