Bagels and Smoked Meat: How Jewish Foods Came to Define Montreal’s Cuisine

One professor examines how a tiny minority left such a major culinary impact despite facing rampant prejudice.

Schwartz's smoked meat sandwich in Montreal.
Wikimedia Commons

Bagels and smoked meat - some of the foods most closely identified with Montreal - are Ashkenazi Jewish in origin, yet Jews make up only 2 percent of Montreal’s population. How did that happen?

One professor set out to explain precisely that. Prof. Olivier Bauer, of the University of Montreal, examined how these Eastern European immigrants left such a swift, significant mark on Montreal’s food culture, and made a number of interesting observations along the way.

Bauer, a professor at the University of Montreal's Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, presented his paper “Bagel, Bagelry, Smoked Meat and Deli as the Jewish Part of Montreal Culinary Heritage” last month at Brown University, Rhode Island. 

“It's as if the culinary heritage of Montreal corresponded almost exclusively to Jewish specialities, which seems disproportionate given that in 2001, Jews accounted for only 2.6 percent of the city's population," he said

Eastern European Jewish immigrants introduced bagels and smoked meat to Montreal in the late 19th century, he says. Many settled on the border between the Francophone and Anglophone communities, placing them in a strategic location that enabled their businesses to cater to a wide range of city residents. 

“Bagels and smoked meat were originally intended for the Jewish immigrant community, but they soon became popular with workers who saw in them hearty and affordable food,” said Bauer, explaining his findings.

Bagels and smoked meat could be made cheaply and plentifully in Montreal, he says.

“For a long time, delis were the cheapest way to nourish yourself,” he writes. Back in the 1930s, a smoked meat sandwich cost 5 cents, he notes.

Bauer took interest in the subject after seeing Jewish foods frequently mentioned on the blog of Tourism Montreal’s vice president. This included a 2011 appeal to “taste Montreal’s culinary heritage,” in which six of the 10 restaurants the tourism umbrella organization listed were actually Jewish, he told the Montreal Gazette.

Yet just because Montrealers happily adopted Jewish foods doesn’t mean they were quick to embrace Jews, Bauer notes. In fact, there was quite a bit of prejudice against Jews, he says.

“Eating Jewish food does not necessarily make you more sympathetic to those who produce it. Besides, most people who buy bagels in a bagel shop or eat smoke meat in a deli probably don't know they're eating an artifact of Jewish culinary heritage,” he said.

In fact, they could happily badmouth Jews while chowing down on a smoked meat sandwich, he writes.

“We must conclude that Christian Montrealers did not widen their taste for bagels, bagelries, smoked meat and delis to a taste for Jews nor for Judaism,” he wrote in his paper, which is in French. 

Journalist Bill Brownstein agreed with Bauer.

“Quebecers likely think of smoked meat and bagels the same way they think of poutine — as local Québécois culinary staples,” he told the Gazette. “Those who are aware of their origins — regardless of whether they harbor prejudice or not — may subscribe to the same view as those who believe Jewish doctors are tops. A kind of reverse, albeit more gentle, racism.”

The widespread adoption of Jewish foods by Montrealers enabled the city’s delis to survive, adds Bauer.

One of Montreal’s best-known delis is Schwartz’s, which is now partly owned by pop star Celine Dion. The deli’s name in French is La Charcuterie Hebraque de Montréal. In the busy summer months, when the city is full of tourists, the deli can sell 1,000 smoked meat sandwiches a day, general manager Frank Silva told the Gazette.