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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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