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The Origin Story of Smoked Meat on Rye

The Scroll takes a trip to Chez Schwartz’s in Montreal

Adam Chandler
December 02, 2013
Smoked Meat Sandwich at Schwartz's.(Photo by the author.)
Smoked Meat Sandwich at Schwartz's.(Photo by the author.)

We’ve been talking about smoked meat, poutine, and the resurgent trendiness of Jewish deli for almost four years now. One initial catalyst was the opening of Mile End–with whom we’ve partnered on a series of sweet events–in Brooklyn. Mile End, despite some production setbacks from Hurricane Sandy, has fast become an institution in New York. It’s even (get this) opened an outpost in that retirement community otherwise known as Manhattan.

The name is a tip of the cap to the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal, where the smoked meat craze began. As with most things, focus tends to be placed on the modern adaptation rather than the original. But as I found myself at Chez Schwartz’s, otherwise known as the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen and really best known as Schwartz’s, this weekend, I felt that the Genesis story was worth telling. Schwartz’s was started by a Romanian immigrant named Reuben Schwartz in 1928, meaning that the old-new smoked meat craze is something that’s now older than both Leonard Cohen. Locally, Schwartz’s has been the subject of both a documentary film and…a musical.

Over the years, it has passed through a small number of owners, but as of last year, the deli is now owned in part by (possible) Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion and her husband. Rumor has it that the deli is also where Bryan Adams got his first real poutine in the summer of ’69.

Where Mile End has tables salvaged from a bowling alley upstate, Schwartz’s has tables that seem like they were purloined from a movie set about Edison, New Jersey, in the 1960s. Both boast a curing and smoking process that lasts for days and days. According to legend, part of why the meat tastes so good at Schwartz’s is because they’ve been smoking it in the same place since the very beginning, which has yielded a not insignificant amount of build-up in the smokehouse.

While the process may be the same at Schwartz’s, the clientele has changed. As I checked out, the cashier told me that only a small percentage of Schwartz’s patrons is Jewish, a departure from its early days when the frequenters of Schwartz’s were exclusively Jewish. The Jewish population of Montreal has dwindled a bit over the decades and Schwartz’s is a kosher-style deli. One tell-tale aspect of the reach of the fabled smoked meat is in the annex next door, where take-out orders are handled and a small seating area away from the main dining room is adorned with praise-covered deli napkins that are tacked to a bulletin board.

Someone named Ashwin wrote: I’m Hindu — Best Beef Ever! A napkin by Travis and Sarah, who were married in late October of this year, wrote that they had their first meal as husband and wife at Schwartz’s. (I guess it’s true that brides and grooms don’t really get to eat at their weddings, amirite?) These love notes of praise were an afterthought for me; after all, I had a sandwich to eat.

True to deli form, the ratio of meat-to-rye at Schwartz’s is about a 7:1. Not that you willingly notice. When you order a smoked meat sandwich, you’re really just granting yourself an excuse to devour a heaping pile of meat between flimsy, mustard-laden vehicles that provide the smallest of psychological egresses. When you lay a bed of French fries to catch the dropping meat, the delusion of sensibility enters the equation. It’s like I ordered two meals! This is great!

Tender, fatty, and juicier than pastrami, the smoked meat at Schwartz’s is not precious. You’ll need napkins. If you’re bringing your new husband or wife with you, so help you, may the ink on your ketubah be dry because there is no stepping out of the abyss once you’ve let someone else see you eat a smoked meat sandwich. Wet rye does not a sturdy bough make, my friends. You won’t dare put the sandwich down to rest before it’s gone. You’ll look deranged. But happily so.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.