Today’s Topics: crazy weather and Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen
Food Pic du Jour: another breakfast, this time eggs Benedict with an English muffin, spinach, cheddar, poached eggs, and homemade hollandaise sauce with a side of fried potatoes
It’s Not Warm!
I have been having an ongoing argument with my husband since we arrived in Quebec over what constitutes “warm” weather. He grew up here, where two feet of snow falling in one night is not a big deal. They don’t even close school for a foot. In the Tennessee Valley, where I grew up, a single falling flake was cause for epic panic and apocalypse preparations. We canceled school sometimes just at the forecast of snow, whether any ended up sticking or not. In Montreal, as a matter of course, people change their car over to snow tires like changing socks; I don’t even know what snow tires look like, let alone have I ever had them on my car. People in Knoxville freak out over snow, suddenly forgetting how to drive and stocking up on water and propane tanks for their camp stoves on the off-chance they’ll lose power for a day.
Last year, we came to Quebec second after spending the first part of the holidays with my family in Tennessee. That meant I saw some January weather in the Great White North. One day we went to visit Mathieu’s cousin in Valleyfield. We came out of our hotel to walk to a breakfast joint down the street. It was -30˚F. This cold was otherworldly to me. I was wrapped up as best I could be (I don’t own any Arctic gear), but the areas of my body that didn’t have more than one layer on them, like the space between where my boots/legwarmers ended and my jacket began, started to burn within minutes. How can cold burn? Oh, I found out. And my eyelashes froze. I literally was pulling icicles from my face, moaning “What is happening to me? Am I dying?”
We’ve had some snow so far on our visit here, but the temperature is hovering around freezing most of the time. This is a much more pleasant experience. When it’s only 31˚F, you can still get out and enjoy the snow; it’s not bitter and debilitating like it gets later in the season. Still, for a born and bred Quebecer, “just freezing” is considered “warm.” We’ve been arguing the semantics and physical perspective of these disparate definitions for temperature all week. I think that if you can go outside in a t-shirt and shorts and be comfortable, it is on the warm spectrum, whereas if you need long-sleeves or an extra exterior layer to be comfortable, it is clearly on the cold spectrum. He thinks that as long as the water is not freezing as it flows, it is still warm. Obviously, he’s just crazy.
Going to a Jewish deli as a semi-vegetarian is a difficult feat. While they usually have blintzes and knishes, the best food to eat at a true delicatessen is generally the meat: pastrami, corned beef, brisket, liver, salami, lox, roast beef, tongue. So it was with intrigue but slight hesitation that I visited the famous Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen in Montreal yesterday.
This place is an institution, surviving and thriving for the last 80 years, passing from the namesake original owners to Celine Dion, who officially owns it today although it’s run day-to-day by the employees. I had been told of it by both my father and godfather, and trusting their judgment on what passed for a good deli (especially my dad, since he was raised a Jew in New York, the deli mecca) I knew I should see it for myself. We never had decent delis in Knoxville, as you can imagine, and I haven’t seen any in Geneva. I’ve experienced the famous 2nd Avenue Deli and Katz’s Delicatessen in NYC, so my standards are pretty high. And with no disrespect to the legacy of Schwartz’s or the fans that have kept it alive, I was really a bit let down.
First of all, their menu is tiny. It was missing a lot of the things one normally hopes to find at a deli, especially one claiming to be a Hebrew deli. Their only side dishes were French fries, coleslaw, pickles, olives, peppers, frankfurters, a Slim-Jim type of sausage known as “nash,” and tomatoes (seriously, just some slices of tomatoes as a side dish). This sides menu reads more like an antipasti bar than what I would expect from a Jewish deli. Where are the potato knishes, the sauerkraut, kugel, stuffed cabbage, or gefilte fish?
Likewise, the main dish menu was limited. Our choices for sandwiches were between turkey, chicken, salami, and the dubiously titled “smoked meat.” What kind of meat, one may ask? When ordering, I asked at first for the turkey sandwich, and then asked what comes on it (mustard, mayo, etc.). The overworked waiter, sensing my unfamiliarity, asked if it was my first time in the restaurant. Did I eat beef, he asked, because if so I should order the smoked meat sandwich, their most famous offering. One mystery solved: “smoked meat” meant beef, specifically pastrami in this case. I didn’t eat beef, I told him, which is why I inquired about the turkey to begin with. It comes with nothing, I found out, and they really mean it. While this no-frills sandwich was served with a Strongman’s portion of smoked turkey, it was otherwise painfully plain. The turkey wasn’t even served warm, and the bread was some basic, plastic bag sliced variety of indeterminate grain.
We received our sandwiches (my carnivore husband went with the “smoked meat” option; seriously, this makes me feel like the other choices don’t count as “meat” to these people) in record time, accompanied by two plates of good, hot fries. The pastrami sandwich was served on similarly lifeless bread, but steaming and slathered in deli mustard which earned it more yum points. We sat down, ordered, ate, and paid in not much longer than 35 minutes, so that at least is in keeping with what I know of delis. Their other menu offerings consisted of plates of meat rather than sandwiches, and included liver, steak, and rib options. But that’s literally their entire menu. No homemade pies or cheesecakes, no soups, no salad platters or smoked fish, and no egg creams.
They obviously have a loyal fanbase and do a booming business. The small restaurant was already packed for lunch by 11 am. The adjacent store saw a steady stream of takeout orders and patrons purchasing Schwartz’s signature spice blend and homemade pickles. We saw stacks of FedEx boxes awaiting shipment all across North America, people ordering whole smoked turkeys for their holiday feasts. The walls of the restaurant are plastered with newspaper articles and photos exalting the restaurant’s near century-long existence. They must be doing something right; it just wasn’t right for me.