It is after hours at a small café in Montreal’s fashionable Mile End neighborhood. The whirring espresso machine has been shut down for the evening, and a long wooden communal table is dotted with plates of pickled turnips and olives and glass jars filled with fragrant dried limes, cardamom pods, and cinnamon sticks. Before long, approximately 30 guests arrive to meet the parade of plates emerging from the tiny kitchen: curried chickpea sambusak (fried turnovers), a sweet-and-sour eggplant dish called engreeyeh, semolina kubbeh dumplings served in pumpkin stew, and an almond-milk pudding flavored with rosewater.
Between courses two women, Sydney Warshaw and Katherine Romanow, share anecdotes about the Iraqi Jewish-inspired dishes being served and remind attendees to take home the tiny bottles of Iraqi spice mix set at their plates. The next morning, the café will resume its espresso-and-foamed-milk routine. But for one evening, the scene more closely resembles a Shabbat dinner in Baghdad.
For two years, Warshaw and Romanow have run The Wandering Chew, a Jewish pop-up dinner series in Montreal. In addition to the Iraqi dinner, their inaugural event held in October 2013, they have hosted a Mexican-Jewish feast featuring gefilte fish in spicy tomato sauce and creamy horchata; a 1950s-inspired Shavuot meal with vegetarian mock liver, blintzes, and sour cream-garnished borscht; and several other meals. Next weekend, on Feb. 8, they will treat diners at a community kitchen called Centrale Culinaire to a Scandinavian-Jewish brunch with herring smørrebrød, lingonberry parfaits, and Danish “Jewish cookies,” sweet butter cookies.
Like virtually all pop-up dinners, each event is an exhausting labor of love. And each has been decidedly successful, with sold-out crowds. But to Warshaw and Romanow, their events are more than an ephemerally delicious experience. They also offer an opportunity to amplify Jewish cuisine’s lesser-known corners and introduce innovative takes on Jewish food to Montreal residents. Traditional Jewish food maintains a solid presence in the city, with its smoked meat empire, Schwartz’s, and beloved dueling bagel shops, Fairmount and St. Viateur. But The Wandering Chew encourages peoples to look beyond tradition and gain new perspectives about Jewish cuisine.
Warshaw and Romanow’s shared interest in Jewish food began years ago. Warshaw is heir to a long line of avid Ashkenazi home cooks; her great-grandmother helped to edit the historic Montreal Hadassah cookbook A Treasure for My Daughter. Romanow was not born Jewish but became fascinated with Jewish cuisine from a historical and cultural perspective as an undergraduate student at Concordia. She wrote her thesis on Mimouna, the end-of-Passover food ritual celebrated by Moroccan Jews. While she never officially converted, Jewish culture has become central to her identity. “My husband and I gave Kat a secular conversion in our bathtub,” Warshaw said of Romanow. “He wrote a beautiful speech about why she should be Jewish, we did a mock beit din and had her dunk three times. Then we ate Chinese food.”
The two women coined the idea for The Wandering Chew in early 2013 during a three-day entrepreneurial gathering for young Jews called Nu Montreal. “We realized how excited people were to connect with good Jewish food,” said Romanow, “and that we could build something from that.” With funding from the Jewish Community Foundation and Federation CJA, and partnership from local cafés and culinary centers willing to let them take over for one evening, they began hosting the pop-up dinners soon after. Last year, they held four events, charging $35 for the multicourse meals.
Montreal, it turns out, has provided plenty of inspiration for their efforts. Home to approximately 90,000 Jews, the community is surprisingly diverse. In addition to its Ashkenazi majority, there are culturally intact populations of Jews from Morocco (more than 20,000 strong), Iraq, Egypt, Italy, Argentina, and the former Soviet Union, among others. According to Lara Rabinovitch Neuman, a Jewish studies scholar and founding editor of the McGill University publication CuiZine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures, “These communities have generally resisted assimilation and remained more traditional when compared to other Jewish communities in North America.” For Warshaw and Romanow’s purposes, less assimilation equals a deeper well of personal experiences to draw from.
While crafting their menus, they regularly interview people about their lives, cook with them in their homes, and gather family recipes. The Iraqi Jewish meal, for example, was based on conversations with three Iraqi-Jewish women living in Montreal whom they connected with through Romanow’s academic adviser. “Sometimes we use their recipes exactly, and other times we riff,” Romanow said.
More important, she stressed, “It is critical for us to include stories about the food we serve during the meals so people can connect to the history and meaning behind it.” For the Shavuot event, for example, they sourced recipes from A Treasure for My Daughter. At the meal, they spoke about the women who wrote the cookbook and had copies for guests to page through. For the Mexican Jewish meal, they typed up historical tidbits—like how the Marrano community influenced Mexican cuisine—on pieces of paper and scattered them around the tables like informational confetti.
In many ways, The Wandering Chew is connected to the recent uptick in nouveau Jewish food businesses and initiatives popping up in major metropolises across North America. In the Bay Area, for example, there’s Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, Shorty Goldstein’s deli, and Beauty’s Bagel Shop (which, interestingly, serves Montreal-style wood-fired bagels), among others. Los Angeles has Wexler’s Deli and several Jewish food trucks. New York has almost too many examples to name. And in Canada, Toronto is home to the artisanal deli Caplansky’s, an Eastern European-Middle Eastern hybrid cuisine restaurant called Fat Pasha, and its sister business, a smoked fish joint called Schmaltz Appetizing.
Until recently, Montreal’s Jewish food renaissance has been comparably quiet. The established places—Schwartz’s, Beauty’s Luncheonette, Wilensky’s lunch counter, and Fairmount and St. Viateur bagels—continue slinging nostalgia-heavy foods just as they have for decades. But despite their continued popularity, there has been surprisingly little new action on the Jewish food front. Schwartz’s biggest smoked meat competitor, The Main Deli Steakhouse, recently announced that it might swap its rye bread for a gluten-free option in an attempt to modernize its menu. But this arguably misguided change has proven unpopular with customers.
The reason for the city’s lack of innovation, some say, is demographic. “The thing that New York and Toronto have going for them is Jewish population growth within the entrepreneurial age range of 25 to 45,” said Noah Bernamoff, who runs Mile End Deli, an artisanal Montreal-style delicatessen in Brooklyn, and who recently co-launched the wood-fired-bagel shop Black Seed in Manhattan. “But very few friends of mine have actually stayed in Montreal since finishing university.” As a Montreal native who imported his passion for Jewish food to New York, Bernamoff’s own experience is case-in-point.
And yet the tide might be shifting. With the historically Jewish Mile End neighborhood currently acting as one of the city’s trendiest epicenters (and home to a sizable Hasidic population), there are plenty of opportunities to connect old and new. One encouraging sign is Hof Kelsten, a brick-and-mortar artisanal bakery opened in late 2013 by renowned pastry chef Jeffrey Finkelstein. In addition to baguettes and ciabatta, he turns out attention-grabbing loaves of challah, caraway-crusted rye, and a variety of Ashkenazi-influenced soups and sandwiches. “You have to call in advance to reserve your challah—they always sell out,” Rabinovitch Neuman said. There is also Cheskie’s, a Hasidic-owned bakery that Romanow said attracts “hipsters, secular Jews, and non-Jews,” as well as a kosher-keeping clientele.
Warshaw and Romanow hope to be catalysts for change. In addition to The Wandering Chew events, the women are partnering with the Museum of Jewish Montreal to create an exhibit about Samy Elmaghribi, a Moroccan-born pop star-turned cantor whose family once owned a bakery in Montreal called Oriental Pastry. The exhibit will feature a pop-up pastry shop selling cookies and Moroccan mint tea. “We are planning to talk to his daughters and learn to make some of the recipes the family prepared at the bakery,” Romanow said. Meanwhile, they are partnering with the museum to launch a walking tour of Jewish Montreal’s food attractions later this spring.
With any luck, Warshaw and Romanow’s pop-ups could spark the beginnings of what Bernamoff calls a “modern yet traditional, commercially viable Jewish cuisine.” “We’re not there yet,” Romanow said. “But we are working on it.”
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