Bill Brownstein is the author of Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story, the definitive account of the iconic Montreal smoked meat institution. How big is smoked meat in this town? They’re making a musical out of his book…
Bill Brownstein has been a columnist with the Montreal Gazette, an author and documentary filmmaker, but it’s clear when we spoke that few of these projects excite him and his stomach more than his book, Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story. The first edition came out in 2006, but it’s been recently released with updates on some of the book’s main characters, as well as a whole new chapter on the legendary Montreal Canadien, Jean Béliveau. It’s a great read, not just for its portrayal of all the fascinating characters who’ve worked at the deli since its opening in 1928, but for its insightful look at Montreal over the years.
Brownstein began going to Schwartz’s as a kid- his parents, Romanian Jewish immigrants working in the garment trade, lived in the area. The book, however, came out of his researching a story on the increasing demand (and the owners’ consistent uninterest) in establishing Schwartz’s franchises around the world. He was amazed to find there was almost no proper documentation of the iconic Montreal deli. We had a rollicking, hour-long chat that I’ve done my best to condense here…
Ok, let’s address this first, they’re making a musical about Schwartz’s???
Bill Brownstein: Bowser and Blue adapted some of the book’s characters, who are larger than life in almost every case, but added in a fictional plotline- it’s a musical after all. They’ve got Stephanie Martin and all of these opera singers with huge voices. It’s very off the wall and surreal. It’s like Queen meets Alan Sherman.
“It is the most democratic of places. Everyone has to wait in line and, once inside, bank robbers and bank presidents have to share a table.”
So, tell me about the deli’s first owner…
BB: Reuben Schwartz was a bizarre, not too pleasant character and much of his success was predicated on his cheapness. He didn’t set out to make the best organic, natural smoked meat out there, it was just cheaper not to add the chemicals. It worked out because the meat was gone so fast that they didn’t need preservatives.
The story of John Zorn throwing his plate of non-Schwartz’s smoked meat at a hotel wall and refusing to play his Jazz Fest show until the real stuff showed up is incredible. Do you have any personal favorites?
BB: Jackie Mason was amazing and the story of Joan Rivers visiting for the first time is a riot. But some of my favourites involve the comedians and people who come to Montreal for Just for Laughs. All these New York guys, who hang out in the delis in New York, it’s like truth serum for them. There’s just something about smoked meat and comedy.
What is the secret to Schwartz’s perfect smoked meat?
BB: They do age it longer and they don’t use chemicals, but the real secret of their success, one of the reason they can’t really expand, is their smoke house. Over the decades, the spices and “schmutz”, as I call it, have soaked into the walls and it’s a huge part of why it tastes so good. You’d have to start all over with a new one.
So how do you order your smoked meat?
BB: Lean, of course, is not an option- you need some marbling in the brisket, which is sort of a peasant cut of meat, so you need some fat. I’ve been told that every brisket tells a story, every brisket is different- it’s like a wine tasting (laughs). I get medium fat, the small plate, half sour (pickle) with coleslaw. And it’s pretty hard not to get those fries. My one concession to dieting is getting the diet coke, but the purists go for the cherry coke.
Favourite (non-Schwartz’s) restaurant: Tuck shop is very cool, the guys who were involved in the Monkland Tavern are behind it- it’s comfort food. There’s also Liverpool. Oh and Lucille’s is amazing because you can get lobster rolls and oysters while watching the hockey game.
Bar: Jello Bar just because it’s fun and entertaining. I also always like visiting the Copa on St-Laurent and all the great characters that hang out there.
Fest: I love the Jazz Fest, even though what it really is is a people fest. But for me it’s Just for Laughs– it’s unlike anything else and we’re very lucky to have it. Getting out on stage for comedians is like walking the tightrope without a net.
Favourite All-time Montreal character: There have a been a lot of the great ones: Mordecai Richler, Nick Auf de Mar and George Balcan. Ryan Larkin, who was Schwartz’ unofficial doorman, was also a fascinating and fairly tragic figure. You don’t run into guys like this much anymore- but I do know some and I try to hang out with them as much as I can.
Photo Credit: Simon Dardick