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Babylon, P.Q.: The meat of the matter

The meat of the matter

It’s only appropriate that one of the juicier bits of anecdotal history produced by the Jazz Fest, which starts today, should also be intimately linked to another of our storied institutions.

As the story goes, famed saxist John Zorn – a Fest regular who just happens to be at Théâtre Maisonneuve tonight – requested Schwartz’s smoked meat prior to a show a few years back. What he got instead was smoked meat from one of the greasy spoons downtown, which he flung against the wall of his hotel room in a protein-diminished fit of petulance. Zorn then refused to perform until he had the bona fide brisket. "His show was held up nearly half an hour. His fans were growing restless. But Jazz Fest founder André Ménard finally saved the day by rushing out to the deli himself and delivering sandwiches from Schwartz’s."

And so begins Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story (Véhicule Press).

This is not a book about food, per se. It’s a proverbial, people’s history; it’s the story of a silk purse from a sow’s ear, or, perhaps more accurately, the creation of legend from one of the crappier cuts of cow. It’s also very hard to put down. Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story is the third book from Gazette columnist and first-class human being Bill Brownstein, and tells the story of how a misanthropic Romanian Jewish émigré became part of the popular real-life mythology of Montreal, and in so doing opened the door on an incredible cast of divergent characters as well as what passes for smoky, garlicky mouth sex in these parts: a Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich – medium!

Reuben Schwartz launched the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen (better known as Schwartz’s) on New Year’s Eve, 1928, on the strength of a still-secret smoked meat recipe and little else. Against all logic, the grubby 61-seater became internationally renowned, and the subsequent 78 years have provided enough scintillating oral history to fill, well, a book. And Bill Brownstein knew just the man to do it. Only one problem…

"There was no [written] history of Schwartz’s, no mention anywhere," says Brownstein. "Even on the history of smoked meat there’s basically nothing written, so it fell on me to do it. But everybody likes to talk smoked meat, so it’s pretty safe ground to start on."

The Story has no shortage of nasty and salacious bits with respect to the early owners ("There’s a very murky history between all of them – it’s a very strange tale, and in the midst of all this they’re making fortunes") which, of course, makes for great reading. At the centre of it all is Reuben Schwartz.

"Schwartz was not a loved guy," says Brownstein by way of understatement. "Not only cheap and exploiting young labour, but hardly a Harvard business success story either… His name is one of the most iconic in the city, yet he didn’t play that much of a role [in the faming of Schwartz's]." Not exactly the flattering portrait one might expect for one of our gastronomical founding fathers. Which reminds…

A succession of prime ministers have gotten their nosh on at Schwartz’s: Trudeau, Mulroney, Chrétien and Martin. In fact, I was in Schwartz’s one night ordering from the counter at the same time PM Chrétien was ploughing through a smoked meat plate, everybody in the place seemingly oblivious to the fact that the ruler of the second largest country on the planet was sucking mustard off his fingers at the back corner table. The PM’s security detail sat behind me at the table by the door, hunched low over their fries in their long trench coats, mouths full of medium, carefully watching me and my karnatzel: one minute the epitome of spicy deli contentment, the next whirling meat sticks of death… You’ll never know how close you came, Jean.

Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story is a frequently fascinating, always entertaining examination of one of the last unexplored corners of Montreal urban folklore, told with wit and exuberance, and must-read material for all Montrealers, especially the recognizable many featured prominently in its pages. And what have their reactions been thus far?

"The waiters all love it, of course," laughs Brownstein. "Some of the characters – Ryan Larkin, The Shadow – seem pretty amused by it all, and the dead cannot speak, which is just as well."


A near-jazz experience Some of the finest rockers this town has offered have turned their musical cheeks, so to speak. Keep your ears peeled this week for Apartment 5, consisting of former Asexuals frontman TJ Plenty (crooning and guitar), Bionic bassman Paul Julius on upright and alternating drummists Tony Spina and Phil Hornsey. "We do a whole lot of jazz standards – Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker etc. – as well as Hank Williams, The Cure and The Replacements," says Julius. "We choose our repertoire according to the gig. Théâtre Ste-Catherine will be a lot more fun than playing a restaurant where people are fine-dining, so I’m sure we’ll let loose a bit." Apartment 5 at Théâtre Ste-Catherine (264 Ste-Catherine E.), June 29 to July 1, and July 3-7, 11 p.m., $5.

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  • by Ronny Pangia - June 29, 2006, 1:00 pm

    I cannot wait to sink my teeth into this book! I am glad to see we can now own a piece of Schwartz’s history (or platter) with Bill Brownstein’s book. This restaurant instantly comes to mymind when visitors ask me where to go and what to do for a truly Montreal experience. Nothing beats Schwartz’s famous smoked meat sandwich. Mind you I am the exception to the rule that prefers taking out my food rather than eating it there but there would be no great tales to tell if everybody was like me.
    I am sure the stories are juciy given the sometimes not-so-friendly service and hustle and bustle feel of this St. Laurent delicatessen. I just hope the book covers the Rolling Stones experience with the Schwartz’s chef that went to the Olympic Stadium to serve them smoked meat!

  • by Mark St Pierre - June 29, 2006, 7:38 pm

    Wow, the untold story of Schwartz’s! Finally a comprehensive look into the goings-on of the storied smoke-meat joint rife with all kinds of anecdotal asides that not only cast light upon the origins of the deli but also some juicy stories about some of it’s more famous and/or notorious patrons. My mouth’s watering for a smoked-meat sandwich at the very thought of it!

  • by Rob Postuma - June 29, 2006, 11:11 pm

    This does sound like an interesting book, even though I’ll probably wait until it’s in the remainder bins or at the local library, rather than take the risk of spending $ 20+ on a book that may only be so-so.
    It is however nice to see a book about everyday stuff in our lives, such as Schwartz’s – long a Montreal food haven. Not sure whether or not it’d be captivating enough to hold someone’s attention for a whole book rather than an article or a chapter – but who knows, it may surprise me. It doesn’t realy sound like a book I would like, though I should point out that for some reason I have never ever been to Schwartz’s in my life ( though I am a huge fan of SMoke Meat Pete’s where ” no one can beat Pete’s meat” – probably the best slogan EVER ! ).
    Hopefully the book does well, and inspires other authors to do more about the history of our fair city.

  • by Maria Cecillia Silva - June 30, 2006, 2:32 pm

    I love Jazz and I respect the artist that play Jazz. But your first story with the Schwartz’s sandwiches made me sick and mad. Just because Mr. John Zorn has made himself a name in the music world and has fans who like his work , doesn’t mean they should have to bend over and whip his but. If he wanted the bloody Schwartz sandwiches then he should have got up off his butt and gone to get them himself. This is what happen when fame gets to the artist, he becomes aggressive and impossible to manage. If I was his manager I would have just cancelled his show and told his fans why! In the end this whole story is really just another publicity scam!

  • by Daudi Saidi - June 30, 2006, 8:30 pm

    Shwartz has always been in the itinerary I prepare whenever I have people visiting from out of town. The place has its own life which I feel should not be touched by a book, a movie or even a tee shirt.
    I am sure there are tons of really interesting stories which are occassionally shared sometimes by waiters, sometimes by total strangers. This I find is an essential part of the whole experience of the Shwartz.

  • by Martin Dansky - July 1, 2006, 1:55 pm

    It does not surprise me that someone like Schwartz would be an icon in Montreal and that he would not be recognized for his politeness. He sandwich bar was and is still a meeting place just as the Wilensky soda bar, the center piece for the Duddy Kravitz story, was on Fairmount. People shared the news of the day and if a poilitican was there he would have been part of that chatter with or without the mustard on his face. Goes to show all one needs to make a mark on the city like Schwartz was not through university degrees, as much as being audacious and in your face.

  • by Roxane Gibault - July 1, 2006, 8:57 pm

    Smoke meat at Schwartz is the best! Everytime I’m in the mood for smoke meat, that’s the place to go. They’re unbeatable, their recipe satisfies me everytime…This book about Schwartz seems quite interesting, I’m sure we’ll find out some tasty information in this book but probably not the way they cook their smoke meat…Unfortunately…

  • by Eric St-Pierre - July 2, 2006, 4:35 pm

    Damn right a book is suitable. Schwartz is a hallmark of Montreal culture that stands strong with its tradition of well the best damn smoked meat in town. Think of all the characters coming in and out just to see this place. Perhaps a Schwartz museum would be a colorful addition as well. Let’s keep this one of a kind spot here forever.

  • by Meghna Patel - July 3, 2006, 10:38 am

    Wow, the legacy these guys have created in Montreal is so strong that they have been able to make a book out of it. Not too shabby!! Then again, they’ve also been a known eatery of Montreal since about the 1920′s, and everyone knows their name. This restaurant has served many celebrities and have done a lot of special requests, so I guess it’s only right that they have a book about their tales, trials and tribulations. If you’re a true Montrealer, and love Schwartz’ cooking, I guess you might as well have a look at the book, and read some wacky stories while you’re downing those big slices of meat.

  • by Keith Rowe - July 3, 2006, 12:42 pm

    Wouldn’t that be something after reading the story about Schwartz’s Smoke Meat on the Main, that somebody would go one step further & actually base a play or story on this Montreal institution where countless of celebrities have basked its domain…What would U call this play? – Eating off of Easy Street? I’m sure you could make quite an interesting plot of which I’m sure many a financial deal or celebrity signing was consumated over a plate of delicious smoke meat…Makes you wonder the history behind the plate of a moke meat sandwich..

  • by Stéphane Oystryk - July 4, 2006, 4:13 pm

    You’d think that after so many years of people lining up outside of Shwartz, rain or shine, someone would decide to expand the restaurant. Maybe even make it a franchise. That of course would be tragic!!! We’ve been lucky so far. The green eyed monsters haven’t been allowed to mess with this already successful and legendary establishment. Part of the whole Shwartz experience is standing in that line inching ever closer to that smoked meat goodness. You feel as if you’ve earned your place inside when you finally cross the threshold and the waiter let’s you inside. It almost makes everything taste better than it already does.
    I remember my first time. What struck me most was the look of the restaurant. Shwartz is so legendary that you almost expect it to be some sort of palace but that’s not it at all. The beauty is in the simplicity, the refusal to march forward with the times. It’s so nostalgic and not in kitsch-y way. It’s a true time capsule. I love the tables that force you to sit with strangers. You often strike up conversations with people you don’t know while passing ketchup across the table.
    I like to think that even Prime Ministers don’t get special treatment at Shwartz, they get the same smoked meat and service as everyone else does. I just hope they make them wait in line with everybody else.
    I can’t wait to read this new book by Bill Brownstein. Shwartz isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience, it’s something special. It’s delicious too. It deserves a book. All this typing has made me hungry. I hope they never change.

  • by Jesse Stacey - July 4, 2006, 7:44 pm

    Stop trying to be cool Mr. Pretentious musician. It’s no secret that Schwartz sandwiches are surprisingly smaller with a fatter price. I go to the Main across the street where I can afford a larger venue with more generously portioned eats, and I’ll tell you it tastes just as good if not better! Like many things in Montreal that play up the hip and kitsch for price value, Schwartz has recently jumped on this very bandwagon. By the time anyone has collected the resources to publish a book on themselves, it’s usually well diminished old news that relies on its new found highly marketable pop-culture status for survival. For a good example of this, go to “The Spirit Lounge” on Ontario street, where you can pay 100$ to eat within a modern day, New age cult that profits off crinkled up aluminum wrapped walls with Christmas lights. It’s kind of like spending 100$ on torn up grassed stained jeans at Urban Outfitters when you can go to Value Village and get the same for a couple loonies. Maybe when Montreal stops catering to yuppies and musicians like this one who find their character and fashion on a store shelf, we can better nourish this supposed “flourishing” scene we have going for us here.

  • by Stephen Talko - July 5, 2006, 8:12 am

    With smoking now banned in public spaces I would not be surprised if Schwartz’s is worried about the smoke it uses to cure its famous smoked meat. Because it is a well guarded trade secret we as consumers do not really know how the smoke is produced and what are the real health implications. To satisfy his public Schwartz’s may have to find a recipe for smoked meat that has the familiar aroma but avoids smoke altogether. I myself have had smoked meat on occasion but prefer roast beef which has far fewer chemicals.

  • by Charles Montpetit - July 6, 2006, 7:13 am

    Is it just me, or do Montrealers a knack for pledging in unquestioned allegiance to just about everything that is bad for us (smoking, pointless car racing, polluting fireworks, and now “one of the crappier cuts of cow” to quote O’Meara’s words)? Who cares if Reuben Schwartz was “cheap and exploiting young labour,” we all seem to say, let’s make him an icon anyway, because that’s all the critical thinking we’re capable of. I can’t wait for further books in praise of other Montreal staples like smog, poverty and illiteracy–gleeful decadence is so much easier than doing things the right way, isn’t it? And people wonder why this planet is doomed…

  • by Josee Lacroix - July 7, 2006, 12:07 pm

    This shows how far word of mouth and tradition can take you. I’ve personally never eaten at Schwartz’s, nor do I ever plan too. Slabs of greasy meat don’t appeal to me, but to each his own. History and tradition are great, but there’s a fine line between staying respectable and becoming overrated.

  • by Genia Chepurniy - July 10, 2006, 6:19 pm

    i’ve never eaten at schwartz’s, but only because i’m a vegetarian… i think i’d like it if i weren’t one though… i remember my mum getting huge slabs of smoked meat and bringing it up to the cottage during the summer….hummm, beefy and greasy….it’s up there with those other lovely montreal landmarks like st. viateur bagels, wilensky’s, the mountain and tamtams, etc etc…i don’t know if i would buy the book ever, or drop by schwartz’s on a city tour of montreal for out of towners, but i like knowing that it’s there just the same…make sense??

  • by Isabelle Bastien - July 10, 2006, 8:02 pm

    I’m all for books and literature. But, I don’t think i’ll buy this one. A book on a restaurant! I know schwartz has been around forever, I’ve even ate their myself. The dills are good, the sandwich’s are good. But are they that goooood!!!! How does anyone wnat to write so passionately about a restaurant? About the man, founder, himself is another story, but stop with the freakin’ sandwich’s!!

  • by Eric Wilson - July 12, 2006, 7:50 am

    It is great to see a book about a true Montreal icon. You might not like Schwartz, or you may not have visited there, but chances are that if you are from Montreal, you have heard of it. Now you can read the truth, which isn’t so pretty. But it is true to life.
    Schwartz is one of those places that makes Montreal where it is. It is our “little secret”. Sure, you can get the same Smoked Meat at “Abbie’s”, or better smoked meat at “Smoked Meats Pete”, but those places only exist because of Schwartz.
    So check this book out, and learn a little more about where we all call home!

  • by Ruth N - July 12, 2006, 11:48 am

    Schwartz is one of the best restos in Montreal. The smoked meat is mouth-wateringly delicious. However, the seating is a bit tight and I maintain that they should offer a larger variety of side dishes to help with digesting all that delicious meat. But it’s great that now Montrealers will get the chance to discover the history of this legendary place from this new book. It’s pretty fascinating how this tiny resto made it so big that almost everyone in Montreal has at least heard of it.

  • by Andrea Silva - July 16, 2006, 9:08 am

    I actually have never been to Schwartz to have their sandwhich, but this meat is so good my company has ordered Schwartz to us… having a nice table set up filled with fresh rye bread and mustard and of course that perfect tender juicy brisket cut fresh before your eyes… I am getting hungry for one now!! Like John Zorn nothing but the best can be acceptable when it comes smoked meat.

  • by Rita Reale - July 17, 2006, 4:14 pm

    I’ve never been to Schwartz, but after reading a few reviews, I wouldn’t mind trying a really good smoked meat sandwich. As for the book, it might if good reading. It’s interesting to know that they’ve been around so long and find out how they started, what they’ve been through and how come they are so popular. It’s good to see that Schwartz is still around because there is so many businesses closing down. Keep up whatever you’re doing.

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