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Nectar of Judea: Schwartz's Montreal smoked meat

Hungry in Hogtown
Published January, 2007

"You know if you had really, really been intent on entrapping me on my wedding night, you wicked woman, you would not have dabbed yourself with Joy, but in Essence of Smoked Meat.  A maddening aphrodisiac, made from spices available in Schwartz's delicatessen. I'd call it Nectar of Judea and copyright the name."
Barney's Version

Odd as it may seem, Schwartz's smoked meat has me pondering the art of writing.  A weighty subject, I know, and perhaps more than two slices of rye, already laden with thin slices of brisket and gobs of mustard can bear.  But Schwartz's , properly known as the Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montréal, and Mordecai Richler , my favourite writer, are the alpha and omega of my Montreal and icons of their respective crafts.

A Canadian literary legend, Richler found inspiration for his best fiction in a tiny slice of his hometown: The Main , aka Boulevard St Laurent, which formed the geographic heart of Montreal's vibrant Jewish community. Anti-heroes are Richler's stock in trade, and his most memorable protagonists -- Duddy Kravitz , Moses Berger , and Barney Panofsky -- are products of the neighbourhood.  All three are pricks with wretched character flaws, like greed, sexism, alcoholism, and a love of the Montreal Canadiens , for example.  Yet I always find myself empathizing with them when I read their stories.  These are not simple characters, and in that complexity lie the qualities that make them likable.  I defy anyone to read Barney's Version and not ache for Barney though, or perhaps because, so much of his pain is self-inflicted.

Not coincidentally, Boulevard St. Laurent is the home of Schwartz's Deli. Richler made no secret of his passion for their smoked meat , and it appears in many of his novels. Its tantalizing aroma is even used by the police as an interrogation technique in his children's book, Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur .

The explicit connection between Schwartz's smoked meat and Mordecai Richler's accessible and witty prose has a more subtle corollary as well. Both seem simple at first glance, but there's satisfying depth, too. And really, aren't food and writing closely related? Both take raw ingredients and craft them into something deeper and more meaningful. After all, even a plate of fruit requires selection and assembly. There are some principles of preparation that should be followed, be they of grammar or of chemical and molecular reactions, though experimenting with these rules often leads to the most striking innovations. In our society, both food and writing are often created lackadaisically, to perform a basic utilitarian function, and both may be consumed carelessly. Both can express a culture, and even achieve the status of art - but a little junk has tremendous appeal once in a while. A meal can create a narrative, and a good book can be devoured, then digested. Both express the creator's individual style, intentionally or not, and it's not always the fanciest and most complicated productions that satisfy the most.

And so we return to Schwartz's.

If you can bear the inevitable line stretching out the front door and find a seat in the cramped dining room, the only proper thing to do is order a smoked meat on rye.  Do not order lean meat.  Do not skip the fries. Today, of all days, treat yourself to a medium-fat sandwich and some of the best fries you'll ever eat.  Yes, the servers usually are that surly, and, no, it's not wrong to order a second sandwich after you demolish the first.  It's merely the respectful sign of a healthy appetite.

What makes this smoked meat so special?  Aside from the secret mixture of spices, Schwartz's meat owes its remarkable flavour to patience. Everyday smoked meat (often called pastrami in the rest of the world) is made by marinating meat for a few days or by treating the meat chemically.  In comparison, Schwartz's marinates their beef briskets in barrels for ten to fourteen days to achieve the balance of briny, salty, and peppery notes that are hallmarks of the product.  The meat is then smoked for a day, until the sinew, fat, and muscle of the meat meld into the succulence that has become the stuff of legend.

We've enjoyed two meals at Schwartz's, both during our trip to Quebec two years ago.  When we learned some friends were planning a visit to Montreal recently, we asked them to bring back a little treat for us. (For those unfortunates without Montreal-bound friends, Schwartz's will ship their meat by overnight express.) Prior to preparing our meat at home,  I phoned Schwartz's to get the skinny on how to do it best.  The answer is steaming -- two or three hours of it, depending on the size of the meat.  When the meat refuses to cooperate with a meat fork, it's ready.

Slicing smoked meat is an art unto itself, as it is with any tough cut like brisket.  With sinewy cuts, the chef's bladework is just as important to the final texture of the meat as the cooking itself.  If you're the Rolling Stones, you can request Schwartz's smoked meat and a Schwartz's employee to slice it after your Montreal concert .  I was left to fend for myself with only two pieces of advice: make sure your knife is sharp, and slice against the grain.

Sounds like good writing advice to me. And the sandwiches were delicious.

Now the feared Bulldog Burke, chief of army intelligence, was brought in to question Jacob Two-Two's father. "We're going to start him right in on the infamous Smoked Meat Torture.  Known as the Salt Beef Buster in England and the Pastrami Punch in the United States.

The other officers turned pale, filled with pity.  But it was too late.  The squad car that had been dispatched earlier to one of Montreal's finest delicatessens had already returned with the cruel instruments of torture.

It was, by this time, long past the lunch hour for poor Jacob Two-Two's father.  His stomach was rumbling as he was tied in to a chair and set down before the kitchen table, where he was joined by Bulldog Burke and his staff.  Then the goodies were brought in, all of them placed just out of reach of Jacob Two-Two's father.  A steaming platter of juicy, tender smoked meat, its wonderful aroma maddening to men, women, and children everywhere.  Heaps of crisp French fried potatoes.  Pickles. Hot dogs.  Rye bread.  Everybody dug in, except for Jacob Two-Two's father.
- Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur

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