Lara Rabinovitch: This is July27th, 2009. We are at the Jewish Public LibraryArchives in Montreal. My name is Lara Rabinovitch. I am a PhD Candidate at theSkirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Department of Historyat New York University. I am here with Eiran Harris, who will now introducehimself.
Eiran Harris: My name is Eiran Harris. I amthe Archivist Emeritus of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.The purpose of this narrative is to provide an accurate chronicle of therenowned Montreal-style Jewish smoked meat which has been enjoyed by millions ofhungry consumers from all over the world for more than one hundredyears.
Lara Rabinovitch: So, Eiran, what werethe origins of Montreal-style smoked meat?
Eiran Harris: Inaccurate informationdid not originate with the internet. For many years deli lovers argued about theorigins of Montreal-style Jewish smoked meat; was it Old Man Wiseman or Old ManKravitz who introduced it? Well, it was neither. In 1911, 63-year-old WolfWiseman, father of highly respected doctor Max Wiseman, placed an ad in theYiddish language daily, the KenederAdler, in which he proclaimed: “News for Smoked Meat lovers. Yourold familiar sausage dealer makes known to the deserving public that he opened afirst class delicatessen store at 35 Ontario Street West, where he will sell thebest smoked meat, corned beef, salami sausage, and canned goods.”
Having conducted extensive research, I have not discovered any proof thatOld Man Wiseman introduced or ever manufactured smoked meat. Old Man Kravitzwill be dealt with later.
The earliest ad in Montreal mentioning smoked meats, of which I am aware,appeared in 1876, announcing that they were being manufactured by the CanadianMeat and Produce Company, whose agents were McGibbon, Baird & Company ofMontreal. These were not Jewish-style products.
The actual genesis was the arrival in 1884 of Aaron Sanft from Yassi,Romania. He became Montreal’s first kosher butcher. Historians believe thatmodern day smoked meat originated in Turkey and was brought to Romania byinvading Turkish armies. Romanian Jewish butchers improved the curing processresulting in an exquisitely tender delicacy.
Lara Rabinovitch: Did Aaron Sanft introduceMontreal-style Romanian Jewish smoked meat to Canada then?
Eiran Harris: That was exactly what he did.Although I don’t know the exact year he introduced it, I do know that he was thefirst to advertise it.
In 1894 Abraham Leon Kaplansky of Montreal issued Canada’s first Jewishcalendar. He was also Canada’s first Hebrew and Yiddish printer. Featured in thecalendar was a full-page ad in Yiddish proclaiming: “A. Sanft Kosher Meat. 560Craig Street, Montreal’s largest butcher shop, clean and fresh meat daily.Manufacturer of salami, smoked meat, corned beef, smoked beef, sausages. Samequality as New York. Guaranteed not to spoil.” Certain phrases in the ad requiresome clarification: truth in advertising did not exist then. Anyone could claimto be the largest. As well, food inspection was not strict and food poisoningwas common. Meat purveyors attempted to outdo each other by announcing they werethe cleanest and freshest. As to the “Same quality as New York,” Canadians feltinferior to the British and the Americans. Montreal’s Jews, especially,considered New York to represent the best of everything. In fact, officially,Sanft called his operation The American Sausage Factory. He died in1913.
Lara Rabinovitch: So how quickly did otherbutchers get into the deli business?
Eiran Harris: The type for the ad was stillset up a year later but Sanft did not renew it in Kaplansky’s 1895 Jewishcalendar. Instead, a newly-established competitor utilized the inexpensiveset-up. Kaplansky replaced only the name and street number and provided kosherbutcher and deli manufacturer M. Joseph of 498A Craig Street with the identicaltext that Sanft had a year earlier. I assume there was no honour amongimpoverished printers.
A Yiddish ad in New York’s JewishGazette appeared in 1899 proclaiming that the largest,‘kosherest,’ and cleanest butcher shop and sausage factory was operated by HymanGenser of 692 St. Lawrence Street in Montreal, “manufacturer of a variety ofsausages, tongues, smoked and pickled meats, all strictly kosher as verified byRabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky.” Ashinsky was Montreal’s most prominent andhighly respected rabbi, and his word was law.
The ad appeared in a New York newspaper because the only Yiddish papersavailable in Montreal then came from New York.
Lara Rabinovitch: So with terms like“kosherest,” how genuine were the kosher claims?
Eiran Harris: Kosher wars existed whereverJewish communities were established throughout the world. Rabbi Ashinksy’sdevotion to Jewish religious laws was never doubted, but for many years a numberof Montreal’s butchers misrepresented their kosher claims. Kashrut conflictsstill exist to this day.
Lara Rabinovitch: Were imported deliproducts available then?
Eiran Harris: It is likely thatMontreal’s deli consumers took their time adjusting to local products, even ifthey were “as good as New York.” Importers never failed to stress the Americanorigins of their goods.
Fraser, Viger & Company, calling themselves Canada’s leading grocers,provided Montreal’s Jewish community with kosher Passover products since thelate 1880s under the religious supervision of Mr. L. Mittenhal. All theirdelicatessen products were manufactured by Zimmerman’s in New York. M. ZimmermanCompany claimed to be America’s largest delicatessen manufacturers, withfactories in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
What follows is a practical chronology of delicatessen importers:
1909: A. Jacobson Delicatessen 1086 St. Lawrence Boulevard. St. Lawrence wasthe major commercial street in the Jewish area. Jacobson offered smoked beef,bolognas, and all kinds of delicacies of the best imported brands.
1910: Mrs. A. Adelson, proprietress of the up-to-date New York KosherDelicatessen Store at 246 Sainte-Catherine Street West provided “the latestassortment of smoked meats, fresh importations every day.” The store was located3 blocks west of Saint Lawrence, still within the Jewish area.
1911: Frohman’s Cafe and Finest Delicatessen, as well as Imported SmokedMeats and Sausages, located on St. Lawrence Blvd.
1912: Mr. P. Zaks, Proprietor of the New York Sausage and Delicatessen storeon St. Lawrence, advertised in large print: “New York in Montreal, the first NewYork kosher quick lunch and delicatessen. All products imported from NewYork.”
1913: Mr. A. Furst, Manager of E. Jackel Kosher Delicatessen on St. Lawrenceclaimed that: “My place is known as the cleanest in the city, and I carry onlythe choicest of all kinds of smoked fish and meats, getting them from New Yorkthree times weekly.” Mr. Furst also advertised the following:
The FOUR questions for PASSOVER
Why do we go to Jackel for smoked MEATS and FISH?
Why can’t we get them elsewhere nearly as good?
Why do we enjoy them so much and always want more?
Why are the imported Sausages, Smoked Meats, Tongue, Corned beefand all kinds of fancy smoked Fish better than the localones?
For answer go to:
E. Jackel, 901 St. Lawrence Boulevard
N.B. Store closed all 8 days of Passover and all Saturdays andholidays.3 April, 1914, Canadian JewishTimes, Montreal
Eiran Harris: As well, he was notfinished with the four questions:
You Are Greatly Mistaken
If you think that all smoked MEATS and FISH are good or bad everywherealike.
Particularly in those goods there are more bad than good qualities, andunscrupulous dealers often put mistrust into the delicatessen buying publicby selling poor old goods.
It is known in New York and here that I am buying the very best meats,and for this reason I sell more than all my competitors takentogether.
Just try once my corned beef, sausages, smoked meats and Russian fishspecialties, and you will be delighted. Store closed Saturdays andHolidays.
E. Jackel, 901 St. Lawrence Boulevard16 January, 1914, Canadian JewishTimes, Montreal
1914: Liber’s Kosher Restaurant and Delicatessen on St. Lawrence, “all ourDelicatessen are imported from New York.”
With a noticeable difference the American connection was still effective in1931 when the New York Strictly Kosher Meat Products and Delicatessen Companyopened at the corner of St. Lawrence and Duluth Avenue: “All meats are smoked atour own premises under the supervision of the Jewish Community Council as wellas the Montreal Rabbinical Council.” It was anther insinuation thatMontreal-style smoked meat was as good as New York. One year earlier sistersMrs. Stick and Mrs. Berger, managers of the Hungarian Delicatessen and Lunch onSt. Lawrence, declared that they had the only place in town providing Bronfman’sproducts from New York.
Lara Rabinovitch: Did Montreal-style smokedmeat eliminate the imported competition?
Eiran Harris: It took a while fromthat to happen. But eventuallyMontreal deli lovers accepted local products and a number of butchers anddelicatessen store proprietors established successful factories. For a period of20 years commencing in 1908, butcher Moses Geffen manufactured kosher deliproducts including Montreal-style smoked meat. In 1929 he became a partner inMontreal’s Palestine Salami Factory which also produced smoked meats.
It is worth noting that the name had political connotations. When thecompany was founded in 1929 Jewish communities throughout the world, andespecially devotedly Zionist Montreal, were traumatized by anti-Zionist riotsand murder of Jews in Palestine. Hence, the name expressed support for a Jewishhomeland in Palestine.
Butchers Mendel Katz and Sam Walter founded Katz & Walter Kosher SalamiFactory in 1911 which manufactured sausages, bologna, smoked meat, andsalamis.
In 1912 Montreal Abattoirs Limited announced that Canada’s largest abattoirshave established the first and largest kosher sausage and smoked meat factory inMontreal. Five years later truth in advertising was again ignored when theHebrew Kosher Sausage Factory proclaimed that: “Atlast the first and only real kosher and smoked meat market in Canada was established.This newly-opened factory is conducted according to the strictest requirementsof Jewish ritual, as attested by Rabbis Cohen, Garber, and Blitt.” All threewere qualified Orthodox rabbis.
Lara Rabinovitch: Eiran, when wereDelicatessen-Restaurants established?
Eiran Harris: There is no indicationthat prior to 1908 delicatessen purveyors operated restaurants in Montreal. Whatthey provided was ready-to-eat smoked meats, smoked fish, salamis, smokedtongues, and sausages. Customers purchased products by weight and consumed themat home or at work accompanied by pieces of bread or in homemadesandwiches.
Long before the term “fast food” was coined for nutritionally-deficientcheeseburgers, French fries, and pizzas, Jewish delicatessens providednourishments to thousands of immigrant factory workers and store clerks who wereallowed only a half hour for lunch.
The earliest ready-to-eat meal ad which I discovered was placed in 1904 byCharles Goldstone, Proprietor of Chicago Hygienic Kosher Meats and Fancy Grocer.He offered “smoked and pickled corned beef and tongues, in brine or ready foruse. Imported cheeses of all descriptions. Salads and pickled herrings preparedfor table use. Lunches put up and delivered on short notice.” The store waslocated at the intersection of Cadieux and Roy Streets. The name Cadieux waschanged to De Bullion Street in 1926 in the failed hope that the red-lightdistrict which dominated sections of the street would be ignored. It didn’thelp. De Bullion acquired the shameful reputation.
Chicago was the renowned meat capital of the United States and Mr. Goldstonewas obviously trading on its fame. What’s good for the USA is good forMontreal.
It must have been foretold in an ancient scroll that in the beginning therewas New York which would beget Montreal’s first real sit-down delicatessenrestaurant. Hyman Rees and his mother, Minnie, arrived in Montreal at the end of1907, leaving his estranged wife, Lillian, in New York, where he operated adelicatessen store on Manhattan’s east side.
On May 9th, 1908, he opened the British-AmericanDelicatessen Store on St. Lawrence Boulevard, two doors south of Ontario Street.The building still exists today. The name utilized the sense of inferiorityCanadians suffered vis-à-vis those two nations, and provided the confidence ofquality to the store. Anticipating legal difficulties from his estranged wife,Hyman had his mother sign a notarized document declaring herself to be the legalproprietor of the store. Being illiterate in English, she signed with an X. Onthe declaration the notary crossed out the word delicatessen because it wasneither English nor French and replaced it with “deliciousness.” TheBritish-American Deliciousness Store. But in actual practice the German term wasretained. Officially, Hyman was named the store’s manager, rather thanowner.
A complete assortment of kosher delicatessen was available, received freshdaily from New York City, consisting of smoked and corned beef, pastrama,lolonne, bologna, and sausages. “We intend to make ourselves famous with ourready-to-serve hot corned beef, fresh twice daily.” It was further declaredthat: “Our aim is not to sell you thecheapest goods, but only the highest grade goods at the lowest price possible.In connection with our store we have an elegant lunch room with the rightservice at all times.”
The 5 cent smoked meat sandwich caused long lineups around the corner toOntario Street. Customers were encouraged to vacate their seats as soon as theyconsumed their meals in order to make room for hungry patrons waiting in line.The store was so successful it enabled Hyman to invest the profits in realestate.
In January 1913 Hyman sold the store to Ralph Machlowitz who patrioticallychanged its name to British-Canadian Delicatessen Store. It remained at itsoriginal location. In fact, it still housed a delicatessen in 1920 calledShapiro’s, owned by a Mrs. Shapiro.
By 1916 the Jewish community was moving westward, and Hyman announced thathe had opened an up-to-date restaurant and fancy delicatessen in the west end,at 105-107 and 109 Delisle Street, easily accessible by two different streetcarroutes.
Also available was stationery, tobacco, cigars, soft drinks, ice cream, etc.He invited his former patrons as well as residents of the neighbourhood tosample his wares. Within walking distance of the store were also factories andrailway yards, and especially the railway yards were important because theyemployed many Jewish workers, so he was counting on that to make the restauranta success.
Hyman Rees, who established Montreal’s first delicatessen-restaurant, wasborn in Kovno, Russian-Lithuania, in 1882 and died in Montreal from a heat stokein 1921. His mother pre-deceased him by two years.
Now let’s concentrate on Old Man Kravitz, a shameless self-promoter.Depending on when and by whom he was being interviewed, Benjamin Kravitz claimedthat he founded Bens Delicatessen in either 1908, 1909, or 1910. Carelessjournalists insisted on spelling Bens with an apostrophe, which it neverpossessed. To this day, journalists still spell Bens with anapostrophe.
Perusing Lovell’s Montreal City Directories, I located “B. Kravitz, Carter,”(that’s a horse and wagon driver) listed for the first time in 1908 on EleanorStreet. He was still listed as a carter four years later when he moved hisfamily to 1208 St. Lawrence Blvd. That address was a storefront and the familyresided at the rear of the store. The significance of that address was itslocation right next to the newly-constructed Vineberg Building: a block-long,eight story structure containing clothing manufacturers employing hundreds ofworkers.
Anticipating a large number of hungry customers, Ben set up his wife, Fanny,in a fruit and candy store. Usually these stores also dispensed cigarettes, softdrinks, ice cream, stationery, and occasionally, hot dogs. Ben told interviewersthat for a while business was slow. Factory workers asked for something moresubstantial than fruits and cookies. That’s when Fanny suggested that Ben couldproduce the smoked meat that he had observed being manufactured back inLithuania. So Ben smoked some briskets in the back yard, but customers rejectedit. He claimed that they were not familiar with smoked meat. But it is unlikelythat smoked meat, which was available in Montreal since at least 1894, was notfamiliar to his customers. Considering that traditional Lithuanian smokedbriskets were created over wet, rotten logs, it is not surprising that they wererejected by discriminating factory workers. In time, however, hunger overcamecaution and 5 cent Montreal-Lithuanian smoked meat sandwiches were accepted.After all, the British-American Delicatessen was many blocks away from theVineberg Building.
Although smoked meat sandwiches provided added income, the bulk of the traderelied on the other goods available in Fanny’s store. What puzzles me is thefact that in Lovell’s Directories the store was listed under B. Kravitz’s namerather than Fanny’s. The store’s furnishings were primitive, consisting of acounter made of loose boards supported by wooden barrels, and low shelvessupported by wooden boxes.
Throughout the years Ben claimed that he introduced the smoked meat sandwichto Montreal. But it is a well-known fact that the British-American DelicatessenStore had been dispensing quality smoked meat sandwiches for a period of fouryears prior to the establishment of Fanny’s Fruit and Candy Store. Old ManKravitz also implied that he introduced smoked meat to Montreal, but we knowthat is a pile of baloney.
Relying on Lovell’s Montreal City Directories, I was able to track Ben andFanny’s progress from the humble Fruit and Candy Store in the garment districtto the celebrated smoked meat emporium in the bustling neon jungle ofdowntown.
1912: The Kravitz Family is residing at the end of Fanny’s Fruit and CandyStore at 1208 St. Lawrence Blvd, at the corner of Dultuh Avenue.
1920: The Store, now described as “Candies and Ice Cream Parlour,” moved to1151 St. Lawrence Blvd, a half a block south of Duluth, on the sunny side of thestreet. An Ice Cream Parlour was a fast-food store with bare tables and hardchairs, serving salads, fish, potatoes, deli sandwiches, and of course, icecream.
In 1925 the store’s name was listed as B. Kravitz Delicatessen. It is likelythat by then the business relied mainly on delicatessen products.
In 1929--early 1929--the economy was booming, jobs were plentiful, shareprices at the stock exchange were rising wildly by the hour, night clubs werebusy and a lot of money was being spent downtown. That’s when the everopportunistic Ben Kravitz moved his delicatessen to where the actionwas.
He rented the ground floor of a small house which served as a grocery storeat 1001 Burnside Place, across the street from the popular Mount Royal Hotel.After renovations, it accommodated a counter with eight stools as well as ninetables surrounded by four chairs each. When the place was full the noise wasdeafening. On the wall above the counter was a large wooden board whichdisplayed the menu. Bens De Luxe Delicatessen Sandwich Shop was open forbusiness. Just in time to welcome the collapse of the stock market and thebeginning of the Great Depression.
Although Quebec suffered high unemployment, it was less severely afflicteddue to its diversified economy. Affordable live shows in theatres and nightclubs were provided by American entertainers such as Paul Whiteman, Benny Field,Blossom Seeley, Red Skelton, as well as many others, and they all gravitated toBens, including local chorus girls.
Those who were still employed and wishing to ignore the depressing povertyaround them patronized the lively entertainment offered by theatres and nightclubs.
Another source of income during the Depression was the ubiquitous houses ofill repute. Bens smoked meat sandwiches were popular with theirclients.
Ben Kravitz shared his good fortune during the Great Depression by providinghundreds of hungry unemployed human beings with free Lithuanian-style smokedmeat sandwiches.
By 1949, Ben’s three sons, Irving, Al, and Sol were working at therestaurant. Business was booming and the family realized that the store was toosmall to achieve its true potential. It was then that underworld figure HarryShip made Ben an offer he couldn’t refuse. Ship had established an impressivegambling and prostitution empire headquartered in Montreal. One of his gamblingdens was located at the corner of Metcalfe and Burnside, diagonally across thestreet from Ben’s restaurant. It was being threatened with seizure, so Ship soldit to Ben for $50,000. When the danger of seizure subsided, Ship asked Ben toreturn the property. Ben refused. Ship threatened violence. Ben reminded Shipthat his underworld bosses greatly enjoyed Bens smoked meat Sandwiches and thatthey may not appreciate his behaviour. So Ship left him in peace.
In 1950 the gambling den was replaced by a 3000 square foot restaurant. 5000hungry customers filled its 150 seats daily, spending an average of 12 minutesto consume a 30 cent smoked meat sandwich on rye bread with a 10 cent pickle onthe side.
Eventually the restaurant’s size and capacity doubled. Until then both theold and the new locations served the public.
Ben Kravitz died in 1956, followed 12 years later by Fanny. BensDelicatessen remained a popular tourist destination for many years until labourconflicts caused its demise in 2006.
Lara Rabinovitch: Do you have a timelinefor other deli stores?
Eiran Harris: What little information whichdoes exist is derived from newspaper ads and Lovell’s Directories.
An advertisement in 1918 proclaimed: “S. Kupchik Romanian Broiling, KosherDelicatessen and Lunch Room, St. Lawrence Blvd.” According to directories itexisted for many years at various locations. I assume that “Romanian Broiling”indicated Kupchik’s country of origin. In the majority of cases “Delicatessen”meant that customers could acquire delicatessen meat products by the pound, aswell as cheeses, herring, canned goods, etc. to take out. Romanian Broiling andLunch Room indicated that meals were available which were usually served in asmall room with a few tables and chairs. Smoked meat sandwiches were served aswell.
In 1926 an ad asked the question: “Did you know that the ImperialDelicatessen had moved to 1463 St. Lawrence Blvd? Rogatko and Son, Proprietors.The best sandwiches in town.” That same year 1463 was changed to 4437. Threeyears later the Imperial was sold and the new owner renamed it Benny’s ImperialLunch and Delicatessen, 4437 St. Lawrence, “The best sandwiches in town.”Rogatko and Son Delicatessen was now directly across the street, on the shadyside, at 4442 St. Lawrence, still proclaiming, “The best sandwiches in town.”Rogatko’s was a popular quality smoked meat sandwich provider for manyyears.
When Toronto attempts to compete with Montreal in quality, be itdelicatessen or bagels, Toronto is the loser. In 1923 a half-page ad announcedthe opening of a delicatessen store: “The Kosher Beef Products of Toronto haveopened a branch in Montreal at 1115 St. Lawrence Blvd under the supervision ofthe Toronto and Montreal rabbis.” Two sets of rabbis were not helpful. The storelasted for a very short period.
You may have heard the fanciful legends about Montreal’s world-renownedJewish smoked meat emporium, Schwartz’s. It was rumoured that Montreal HebrewDelicatessen, popularly known as Schwartz’s, was established in 1930 by therespected musician and composer, Maurice Zbriger. Being reluctant to have hisgood name associated with a pedestrian eatery, he hired a manager named Schwartzto front for him. According to another myth, Schwartz actually founded the delibut lost it to Zbriger in an all-night poker game. Or have you heard the oneabout two elderly widows founding it? In fact Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen wasopened after sundown on Saturday, December 31st, 1927 at3877 St. Lawrence Blvd, near Cuthbert Street. A kosher delicatessen store with afull line of homemade delicatessen products: “Our sausages and frankfurters arethe kosherest in town.”
Reuven Schwartz or Reuben Schwartz, Shvartz meaning black in German, arrivedin Montreal from Romania in 1921. After working at a variety of jobs he foundedthe deli in 1927. Reuben enjoyed gambling and the company of women. During thegreat economic depression of the 1930s, gambling and wenching were not soundfoundation for a successful business enterprise. Reuben paid more attention topleasure than to business. When millions of workers were unemployed, wenchingand smoked meat were fatal combinations. But he possessed one great asset: thesecret recipe for smoking meats which he brought from Romania.
In 1931, hoping to ameliorate business, Reuben decided to play the Americancard. He announced that Barnet Brodie’s Kosher Delicatessen meat products fromBrooklyn, New York, America’s kosherest products, were only available at hisstore. But a year later, on the verge of bankruptcy, Reuben sold the deli to hisfriend Zbriger, who retained him to manage the store, a position he occupied therest of his life. As well, Zbriger invited Reuben to reside at his home which hedid for the next 34 years. Reuben died in 1971 at the age of 72, survived by abrother, Dr. Victor Le Noir, meaning Black, of Paris, France.
In order to reduce expenses Zbriger surrendered the deli’s koshercertification. It was never renewed.
Maurice Zbriger received an excellent musical education in Russia, where hisclassmates included Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Mischa Elman. With hispianist wife, Mary, he toured European concert halls prior to arriving inMontreal in 1924 at the age of 27. He possessed an admirable business acumenwhich enabled the deli to survive the Depression and achieve its enviableinternational reputation.
Considering that during the Second World War a smoked meat sandwich atSchwartz’s with a soft drink cost 13 cents, it took a lot of acumen to operate aprofitable deli. Schwartz’s secret recipe was responsible for the store’ssuccess. Even to the present time.
In order to preserve and protect his honourable reputation as an artist andphilanthropist, Zbriger was reluctant to admit ownership of Schwartz’s until hisdemise in 1981. He believed that owning a deli was demeaning.
3895 St. Lawrence Blvd occupies a unique role in Montreal history. In 1926it housed the Canadian Delicatessen, which remained there until 1938. In 1939Bernstein’s Delicatessen possessed it. And since 1940, it housed Montreal HebrewDelicatessen. A total of 83 years of continuous delicatessen services.
Benny Schwartz, no relation to Reuben, acquired Canadian Delicatessen in1926. It was located at 3895 St. Lawrence Blvd. Benny claimed that the deli hadbeen established in 1914. He announced that he was an importer of European anddomestic delicatessen products such as black and red Russian caviar and cheeses.But smoked meats and smoked fish were homemade. “Once a customer, always acustomer,” he stated confidently.
In 1936, Benny proudly proclaimed: “Benny Schwartz Canadian Delicatessenannounces grand opening of his remodeled modern and up-to-date broiling anddelicatessen store. Try our assorted tasty delicatessen lunches and broiling.All smoked meat, corn beef, salami, sausages and fish are made specially for ourstore in our own factory. Fresh daily. We serve the best tasty sandwiches in thecity. Broiling of every description given special attention.
Two years later, Benny Schwartz’s remodeled, modern, up-to-date CanadianDelicatessen closed its doors, a victim of the Great Depression.
Another example of appeals to Canadian feelings of inferiority was H.Chenoy. In 1926 he owned the Broadway Delicatessen on St. Lawrence. The nextyear he founded the Brooklyn Delicatessen and Sandwich Shop which existed formany years on St. Lawrence near Mount Royal Avenue. The New York cachet wasstill considered to be good for business. It offered mushrooms imported fromRussia and home-made smoked meats and delicatessen foods.
“Sandwiches our specialty. All sorts of sandwiches, light lunches, cigars,soft drinks at Elbe Sandwich Shop and Delicatessen. Our special 2 sandwiches and1 drink for 20 cents. We deliver. 2009 Bleury Street above Ontario Street.” Theyear was 1932. The location was downtown. But that didn’t help. The shop did notsurvive the Depression.
Etinson’s, the only kosher delicatessen and sausage factory in Montreal, “acomplete line of kosher delicatessen products as inexpensive as non-kosherproducts.” According to family tradition, Aaron Etinson arrived in Montreal fromRomania prior to World War I in possession of a secret recipe for smoking meats.He opened the store in 1918 at 3671 St. Lawrence Blvd, where it remained untilhis retirement 40 years later. When the business was firmly established Aaron’stwo brothers joined him, as well as three daughters and two sons who helped inthe store in order to reduce expenses.
Due to the reliable quality of Etinson’s deli products, and the consistentkosher certification, many grocery stores carried these products. In Etinson’scase the kosher certification was honestly acquired and honourably retained overa period of 40 years.
For a short period during the Depression, a second store opened on ParkAvenue which served customers west of St. Lawrence Blvd.
Etinson’s smoked meat sandwiches were more popular than Schwartz’s due totheir kosher certification.
The Young Men’s Hebrew Association building was constructed in 1929 at thecorner of Mount Royal and Park Avenues. Five years later two ads appealed to thesame clientele: “YMHA members! Meet your friends at Nelson’s Delicatessen andSandwich Shop around the corner at 4567 Park Avenue.”
“George’s Delicatessen and Sandwich Shop 4506 Park Avenue (near Mount RoyalAvenue)” in fact 4506 was at the corner ofPark Avenue and Mount Royal, whereas 4567 was 33 doors from Mount Royal. In anycase YMHA members were offered a choice.
In the middle of the Depression the United Delicatessen Store opened at 3957St. Lawrence near Napolean Street. “The best products available from thelargest manufacturers,” itproclaimed. “Sandwiches = light snacks = soda fountain.” And there was more:“WARNING: When purchasing your delicatessen do you consider the kinds of meatsbeing used, and the sanitary condition under which they are manufactured?Products produced by large firms aresuperior to ‘home-made’ delicatessen. Do not be deceived by ‘home-made’ it isnot made under government supervision, which is the best guarantee forcleanliness and quality.” That warning did not help the store to survive theDepression. So much for “largefirms.”
Conveniently, the non-kosher United Delicatessen ignored the fact that themajority of the homemade small manufacturers were under kosher supervision whichprovided reasonable guarantees of cleanliness and quality.
I am aware of a company which never was a restaurant or even a delicatessenstore, but had a great presence in Canadian commerce. 24-year-old pennilessLatvian-born master butcher Samuel Coorsh arrived in Montreal by way of Glasgow,Scotland, in 1906, and was hired by a meat canning company. Ten years later hefounded the S. Coorsh Sausage Factory at the corner of Ontario and St. ElizabethStreets. Rents on St. Lawrence were more expensive. It contained a meat mincingmachine and a smoking oven which were the basic tools required to manufacturesalamis and smoked meats. The family resided above the factory. Using hisspecial recipe Coorsh produced smoked meat with a distinctive flavour which wasfavoured by a large number of clients.
Due to greater demand and increased production, the family moved out in1923. The factory occupied the whole building. City-wide deliveries were nowmade not only by horse and wagon, but also a Model-T Ford truck. A greatervariety of smoked meats were produced using traditional Europeanrecipes.
In 1935 the company proudly announced that being Canada’s oldest and largestdelicatessen manufacturer, it reached a milestone by being the only Jewishdelicatessen factory in Montreal under the supervision of the Canadiangovernment, thereby guaranteeing freshness, quality, and hygiene.
During the Second World War, for a token fee of $2, Coorsh mailed five-poundsalamis to Canadian soldiers serving overseas. After the war returning soldiersthroughout the country asked for Coorsh products.
In 1949, with Samuel’s two sons Dan and Charles firmly established, thecompany’s name was changed to S. Coorsh and Sons Ltd.
When the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in1966, it had factories and distribution centres throughout Canada providing avariety of some 40 delicatessen products. Samuel Coorsh died in 1964.
Sausage maker Nathan Levitt arrived in Montreal from Bessarabia, Romania, in1925, where virulent anti-semitism caused many Jews to emigrate. 12 years later,with a borrowed $500, he opened Levitt’s Delicatessen Products on St. LawrenceBlvd, producing a variety of meat products under kosher supervision, includingMontreal-style smoked meat.
During its 67-year existence, under several different owners, it gainedinternational renown for its kosher hot dogs and salamis.
Canada’s effort and accomplishments during the Second World War provided itspopulation with the confidence it lacked for too many years It was no longernecessary to name delicatessen stores “American,” “New York,” “Philadelphia,” or“Chicago.” Instead, they were named after their owners or municipal geographicallocations.
One store which I knew well was the Victoria Delicatessen and Dairy onVictoria Avenue, corner Cote St. Catherine Road. The small 150-square-foot storeprovided an income to the families of the two partners who owned it. The popularstore was well patronized by neighbourhood residents who were able to acquirebaked goods, milk, eggs, soft drinks, herrings from a wooden barrel, loose greenand black olives by the pound, canned goods, cigarettes, and cold cuts,including smoked meat. In 1951, a generously piled smoked meat sandwich on ryeto go cost 15 cents. By 1954 the price had risen to 25 cents.
According to Lovell’s Montreal Directory there were 19 delicatessens in1921, 35 in 1926, and 45 by 1932. That number remained constant for many years.But for me it is still difficult to distinguish between delicatessen grocerystores and delicatessen restaurants unless, of course, I can locate newspaperads publicizing their services. Just a couple of days ago I acquired a menu froma newly established Russian Delicatessen, on Sherbrooke Street West. We are usedto the best sandwiches in town but here for the first time we have the bestpierogi in town. There are 12different flavours of pierogi and 16different flavours of crêpes, and not asingle one of them has smoked meat in it. And I am wondering if this will spellfini to the traditional use of theterm “delicatessen.”
Lara Rabinovitch: Is there a secret formulato the unique quality of Montreal-style Jewish smoked meat?
Eiran Harris: There were and still areseveral secret formulas based mainly on the combination of salt and spices usedto coat the briskets. Variations in secret curing ingredients will affectflavour, but the most important aspect of a successful outcome is the cooking.An inferior cut of beef may be improved with careful cooking. Conversely, asuperior brisket could be transformed into an outstanding taste experience withexpert cooking. The secret formula is in the cooking as well as the curing.Expert trimming of the briskets by a butcher also contributes toquality.
Traditionally, the dry curing process commenced with salt and spices beingrubbed on the surfaces of briskets which were then piled into wooden barrelswhere they remained marinating in their own juices for a period of 12 to 20 daysdepending on the thicknesses, and being turned over a couple of times.
The cured briskets were then hung up on racks which were placed in a smokehouse and cooked for six to nine hours depending on brisket size. Their progresswas checked occasionally. This form of cooking caused a 25 percent loss involume, but resulted in the unique quality and flavour of Montreal-style smokedmeat.
In conformity with kosher rules, the meat was taken from the forequarters ofthe animal, usually a steer. The brisket was used for Montreal-style smoked meatand the fattier cut called the plate was used for pastrami.
Eventually the American need for speed was applied to smoked meats. That’swhen the wet cure was introduced. Briskets were rubbed with spices and soaked ina barrel filled with brine composed of nitrate and water for only four days.Nitrate is a chemical used to manufacture explosives as well as a meatpreservative. Although this was not the formula for Montreal-style smoked meat,it did have many adherents who appreciated that the flavours of the curingagents were more evenly distributed throughout the briskets.
Another American invention was heated smoked meat. Cooked briskets wereplaced in a steamer three hours prior to being sliced and served in order toreplace the 25 percent lost moisture and enhance flavour andtenderness.
Lara Rabinovitch: Eiran, is this the wayMontreal-style smoked meat is prepared now, heated? Was this heating processimported to Montreal, then?
Eiran Harris: I don’t know who discoveredit. I suspect it’s American. And it is now used by all to enhance the tendernessand the flavour, but the basic production of Montreal-style smoked meat is stillthe dry cure, which I mentioned first.
When Montreal-style smoked meat is shipped out of town, it is shippedwithout being steamed. So anyone who receives a Montreal-style cooked brisket,receives it cold, slices it cold, and enjoys it cold. I still enjoy the coldMontreal-style smoked meat.
Lara Rabinovitch: So what is the currentstate of affairs?
Eiran Harris: With the exception of the fewwho still adhere to the traditional Montreal-style smoked meat, so-called “OldFashioned” smoked meat is cured in only three days, and regular smoked meat iscured overnight.
The Main Restaurant delicatessen is on St. Lawrence Blvd. “The Best (wereally mean it) smoked meat in town,” they proclaim. Their homemade smoked meatis adequate, but Schwartz’s is superior, and it’s just across thestreet.
Lester’s Delicatessen on Bernard Avenue serves a tender and delicious roastbeef sandwich, as well as their famous smoked turkeys, since 1951.
Two delicatessen restaurants are located in the wild west island suburbs ofMontreal. Abie’s was opened in Dollard-des-Ormeaux in 2000 by Abie Haim. Hisfather, Jan, arrived from Romania in 1964 and was hired by Schwartz’s where heremained until his retirement in 1998. His son worked at Schwartz’s for 16years. Abie’s Montreal-style smoked meat contains some of Schwartz’s secrets.Peter Varvaro, whose father owns The Main Restaurant, opened Smoke Meat Pete’son Île Perrault in 1997. His Montreal-style smoked meat is said to be closer toSchwartz’s in quality than to The Main.
Lara Rabinovitch: So these restaurantsserve the traditional, “Old-Fashioned” smoked meat still?
Eiran Harris: Don’t bring “Old-Fashioned,”because nowadays some are using “Old-Fashioned” to confuse people and in factare only preparing it for a very short time. Curing and cooking for a lot lesstime than the traditional, Montreal-style smoked meat. So “Old-Fashioned” ismisleading name.
Eiran Harris: Now we have Hy Diamond, ownerof Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen since 1999, he was reluctant toreveal the secret recipe of spices used to flavour his briskets. He did,however, reveal the reasons for Schwartz’s outstanding success: pride in theold-fashioned tradition of quality, service, and customer satisfaction. Pride ofproviding the very best. The formula for producing superior Montreal-stylesmoked meat has not varied in 82 years. Diamond also told me that “Schwartz, theMusical,” will be produced within a year, with such musical favourites as “OnceI Had a Brisket,” “Me and My Salami,” and “Cold Cuts Keep Falling on MyHead.”
For a number of years, I attempted to discover where and when the firstmade-to-order smoked meat sandwich was sold and served in North America. I wasnot successful. I did, however, discover, that the earliest kosher smoked meatsandwiches were consumed at the temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. That customis still being commemorated at Passover with the Hillel sandwich.
And that is the end of my story.
Lara Rabinovitch: Well, thank you,Eiran, for setting the record straight, with all of this incredibleresearch—really a life’s work for you, on this beloved Montrealspecialty.