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Montreal's Smoked Meat King

The Main's most famous restaurant finally has a book

Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story
by Bill Brownstein
Véhicule Press, 2006
155 pages

It's 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday night at Schwartz's. Every stool along the deli counter is filled, and a line is beginning to form at the door and spill out onto Saint-Laurent Boulevard. Behind the counter, a man in a black Schwartz's ball cap is slicing brisket-six slices for a sandwich, twenty for a plate. He works with a practiced hand, first setting his fork into the meat before rhythmically separating the quota with his knife.

This deli is famous. The Rolling Stones spec'd Schwartz's smoked meat when they played Montreal. Céline Dion knows the cashier by name. Several Canadian prime ministers have stopped in while making their way through town. It would seem that this business has it all-everything, that is, except a book ... until now.

Bill Brownstein, columnist with the Montreal Gazette, has just completed a history of the landmark Montreal deli, Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story. It's a story he's been entwined in his entire life. Brownstein is the great-great-grandson of Itzak Rudman, a Romanian Jew and the original Montreal smoked meat pioneer. Or was that Max Lester? Or maybe one of many other unnamed Romanian émigrés renowned for their skill with smoked meat? It seems no one can completely agree on the true founder of the tradition but all accept that the recipe is Jewish and Romanian.

Schwartz's, the book, grew out of Brownstein's personal fascination with the deli. Though he couldn't find very much that had been previously written about its history, he filled the void with an incredibly well-researched chronicle that reads like a collection of short stories (many of which overlap and, like the line-ups at this legendary deli, spill onto the street and beyond). In this melee we learn about the people, the mystery and the unquestionable success that is Schwartz's.

Despite the heat in the deli, Brownstein looks cool and relaxed as he leans against the worn counter during his book launch. He still recalls his first visit at the age of five: "I came in here. It was like a steam bath and the people (these were the days prior to South Beach and Atkins and everything else) were all fighting for attention and trying to out-talk one another. It was like a melting pot-it was like the United Nations. And that was, like, fifty-odd years ago."

The people, indeed. Without them, this place would be nothing. Through Brownstein's stories we learn about the innovators: Reuben Schwartz, father-son managers Frank & Frank Silva, and The Shadow. We learn about the fixtures: Mr. Monday, Ryan Larkin (the "doorman"), and "Marky" Mark Saykaly. And we learn about the owners, past and present: Maurice Zbriger, La Grande Dame (aka Armande Troupin Chartrand) and Hy Diamond. There are countless others.

In a heritage best described as "serial caretaking," each in Schwartz's succession of owners has looked out for the one who came before. If you're hoping for a piece of the action, pay close attention here. It seems the relationship between the founder, Reuben Schwartz, and his eventual silent partner, composer Maurice Zbriger, was never fully understood by anyone. It also seems that the woman who inherited the deli from Zbriger was his impresario and, in later life, his nursemaid. Even the current owner, Hy Diamond, was a former accountant for the deli, before purchasing it in 1999. A tangled web, indeed.

Brownstein's book uncovers many such mysteries, including the source of Schwartz's powerful grip on the Montreal smoked meat biz: the brick smoker. He also reveals a good deal about the mystique around smoked meat, including what it's made from and how. The cut used is a cheaper one called brisket, a tough piece from the upper chest of the animal that demands special preparations in order to be tasty. We are told the road to perfect smoked meat requires that no preservatives or chemicals be used, that the beef be marinated for ten to fourteen days (once you know how much of the spice to sprinkle), that only Schwartz's brick smoker will do (it traps the schmutz) and that the brisket must be cooked in the steamer behind the counter (one-and-a-half hours will do nicely). Perhaps he most horrifying revelation for Montrealers may be that this Montreal tradition has been built using beef supplied from Alberta.

Brownstein also tackles the reasons that Schwartz's has never expanded, despite ongoing pressure to do so. The deli even engaged its customers in settling this dilemma through a poll in the Gazette. In addition to overwhelming response from Montrealers, opinions also rolled in from San Francisco, North Carolina and Iqaluit. And it appears that Schwartz's power over the consumer rests squarely on its one-of-a-kind presence. As owner Hy Diamond is often quoted throughout the book: "There is only one Carnegie Hall. There is only one Pavarotti. And there is only one Schwartz's."

In the final analysis it seems that, more than anything, what Schwartz's has is really good buzz. CTV even sent a satellite truck out to cover the book launch-a book launch, for goodness sake! According to The Shadow, a former broilerman, it was Expo 1967 that really broke the Schwartz's story wide open, after travel and restaurant writers from around the world discovered the place. The tourists have been flocking ever since.

Brownstein gets animated as he expounds on Schwartz's appeal. "What I think I find most fascinating about this place is that it's one of the most democratic places around," he says. "I mean you're thrust at a table with eight people and they could be anybody. Bankers, lawyers, blue collars, cabbies, hookers, you name it. And you're all put together. There's no elitist element-you can't make a reservation, you can't pay by credit card, you stand at the door and you're all one."

United Nations, take note.