One of the most colourful disputes to characterize Montreal’s Jewish community is the “smoked meat debate.” Many identify Montreal’s smoked meat (beef briskets enhanced by spices and Eastern European-influenced smoking methods), along with bagels and poutine, as emblematic of the city’s cuisine. With various delicatessens claiming to have brought the first and best smoked meat sandwich to Montreal, this question was passionately debated along “the Main.” Eiran Harris, the Jewish Public Library’s Archivist Emeritus, is best positioned to conclude this decades-long dispute.
Bens claimed to be the first, opening in 1911–12. Catering to factory workers at their fruit store on St. Lawrence and Duluth, Ben and Fanny Kravitz expanded their repertoire to include smoked meat sandwiches, using Lithuanian techniques. In 1925, the store was renamed B. Kravitz Delicatessen (also known as Bens de Luxe Delicatessen Sandwich Shop) before moving to Burnside Street (now de Maisonneuve), where it remained until closing in 2006 due to a labour dispute.
While Kravitz promoted himself as having introduced smoked meat to Montreal, Lovell’s Directory and newspaper ads reveal that Hyman Rees’ British-American Delicatessen Store (on St. Lawrence near Ontario) was dispensing smoked meat sandwiches in 1908, a few years prior to the establishment of Fanny’s Fruit and Candy Store. While Rees’ was the first sit-down delicatessen to sell smoked meat, a series of butchers were preparing smoked meat as early as the 1890s. Aaron Sanft, a butcher on Craig Street (now St-Antoine), was perhaps the first. Using a Romanian recipe, he promoted his American Sausage Factory’s smoked meat in an 1894 Jewish calendar.
Another contender for Montreal’s smoked meat fame is the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, popularly known as Schwartz’s. Established in 1927 on St. Lawrence near Napoléon and using Romanian smoking techniques, the original owner, Reuben Schwartz, was forced to sell the business in 1932 due to his gambling and his womenizing. The new owner, a musician named Maurice Zbriger, was reluctant to have his name affiliated with a “pedestrian eatery” and rehired Schwartz as his manager to front for him. With the closing of Bens, many label Schwartz’s as the undisputed king of Montreal delis (although its competitors across the street at the Main Deli, as well as at Lester’s, Dunn’s and the Snowdon Deli would argue otherwise). Schwartz’s history is commemorated in Gary Beitel’s film, Chez Schwartz’s and Bowser & Blue’s Schwartz’s: The Musical.
According to Harris, as smoked meat sandwiches gained international reputation on the culinary map, Jewish delicatessens expanded from four at the turn of the century to forty-five in 1932. A number of these lesser-known delis prepared their own smoked meat, including Etinson’s, Rogatco’s, Chenoy’s, Hebrew National, Putter’s, Shagass’s, Levitt’s and Montreal’s Palestine Salami Factory. Few Jewish-style sit-down delis remain in Montreal and none are under rabbinical supervision. As popular tourist attractions, the delis have hosted several famous encounters, including Ben Kravitz’s run-in with gambling kingpin Harry Ship in the 1940s. Threats of violence dissipated when Ben reminded Ship that his underworld bosses were avid fans of his smoked meat.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky.
Brownstein, Bill. Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 2006.
Asher, Stanley. Review of Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story. By Bill Brownstein. Canadian Jewish Studies. 2010. Online.
Chez Schwartz - A Year in the Life of Schwartz's Deli. Dir. Gary Beitel. Les Productions De Boulevard, 2006. Film.
Gordon, Judy. Four Hundred Brothers and Sisters: Two Jewish Orphanages in Montreal, Quebec, 1909-1942. Toronto: Lugus, 2002.
King, Joe. From the Ghetto to the Main: the Story of the Jews of Montreal. Montréal: Montreal Jewish Publication Society, 2001.
"Moishes." Moishes. 2010. Online.
Rabinovitch, Lara. "Montreal-Style Smoked Meat: An Interview with Eiran Harris Conducted by Lara Rabinovitch, with the Cooperation of the Jewish Public Library Archives of Montreal." Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures 1, No. 2 (2009). Online.
Weintraub, William. City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s. Toronto: Robin Brass Studios, 2004.
*The images are courtesy of JPL-A, Bens Delicatessen Collection in Honour of its Founders, McCord Museum, Schwartz's Deli, Jennifer Wieskopf, David Nuff, and CJCCCNA.