When I moved to New York from Los Angeles in the winter of 2004, I decided that if I was going to call New York home, it was time to eat red meat, again. So I schlepped down to the Second Avenue Deli (of blessed memory) for the pastrami sandwich. I took a bite, and asked the waiter for a pickle.
“Wait just a darn minute,” he said. “Is that the best sandwich you ever tasted, or what?”
“Well, it’s not Schwartz’s,” I answered.
Okay, so it was a great pastrami sandwich. I visited Second Avenue a few more times, but I always knew where, for four bucks, I could get a really nice sandwich.
Less than six months later, I moved to Montreal. To say it was just because of Schwartz’s original world-famous smoked meat would be an overstatement — after all, there are St-Viateur bagels — but it wouldn’t be lying altogether, either. “Chez Schwartz,” a commendable documentary by Gary Beitel, tells the story of the deli that is emblematic of Montreal.
Montreal smoked meat and New York pastrami both start out as a cut of brisket. But unlike pastrami, which is injected with chemical nitrates and put into a liquid brine and then smoked, Schwartz’s smoked meat is marinated in natural dry spices and its own juices for 10 days. Then it is smoked for eight hours, kept cool in the store window and finally put in the steamer for three hours. In the end, there is no comparison in taste.
From the first frame of Beitel’s film, you’re already hungry. The sandwiches — and they keep coming and coming — look as good as they taste! And even in Montreal’s harshest weather, the people keep lining up for them. As one waiter says, day in and day out, it’s like the release of a Harry Potter novel.
Regrettably, the film gives very little of the history of Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, which was opened in 1928 by a Romanian Jew named Reuben Schwartz. Rather, it focuses on a year in the life of the eatery. As the title of the film implies, the restaurant is known as Chez Schwartz, not Schwartz’s, to most of the present-day clientele. Only 5%-10% of today’s customers are Jewish, as opposed to the near uniformity that once was.
Nowadays, Schwartz’s is patrimoine — the heritage of all Québecois. With space so tight that you can barely squeeze into it, everyone sits together, flipping back and forth effortlessly between English and French in shared jovial conversation.
The film, which is in English and French with English subtitles, grows on you like the restaurant grows on the staff: There’s the college graduate who planned to spend only a couple of years at Schwartz’s; he has been there for a dozen. And there’s the busboy-poet, given the rare shot to move up to counter waiter, who never realized how tough it is to keep the lean-from-the-medium-from-the-fat straight in such a crowded room. Someday they’ll both end up like the old vets with 40 years under their belts.
The film’s most moving moments, perhaps, are when it humanizes the handful of pan-handlers who’ve claimed spots in front of Schwartz’s, some for as long as 15 years. One such man is Ryan Larkin, the acclaimed National Film Board animator of the 1970s who was nominated for an Academy Award, and who was also the inspiration for an Academy Award-winning film (Chris Landreth’s “Ryan,” 2004). Larkin has struggled through hard times, and in “Chez Schwartz,” he tells how he just learned he has inoperable lung cancer. “Don’t talk to me about sunny days, sunny skies,” Larkin says as he sticks out his cup. “In a world full of deserts and freezing-cold days, talk to me instead about overcast skies and a chance for rain or a mild snowfall. Overcast skies.” (The good news is that Larkin is back at his drawing table and has just done three five-second clips for MTV.)
But “Chez Schwartz” can also be hilarious. Take the kid from Ottawa who indulges in “that perfect bite” and notes that “the perfect experience is smoked meat after sex.” “Seinfeld” character George Costanza had it wrong when he thought it may be pastrami.
Yes, “Chez Schwartz” is a film to drool over. But, as it richly depicts, food and the place are inextricably linked, so it’s worth taking a trip up north.
In fact, I know a tri-state area Orthodox rabbi (identity protected) who comes to Montreal on sacred business several times a year. Tired of being mocked ceaselessly by Montreal Jews for extolling Second Avenue, without ever giving their schtickle chazeray a try, he finally gave in to temptation. He called up a local rabbi to confess. “Moishe (also protected), I had a revelation today. I had a Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich. It was amazing, succulent, flavorful, peppery. It was delicious. It melts in your mouth.”
“Treyf min ha-toyreh! It’s biblically forbidden!” Moishe yelled, nonplussed. “Yaacov, you’ve become a total goy, eating Schwartz’s smoked meat. You’re an Orthodox rabbi!”
“I think this might have been the best single food I ever put in my mouth,” Yaacov said, salivating. Moishe takes a long pause. “Do they deliver?”
Sheldon Chad is a Montreal-based screenwriter and freelance journalist with mustard-stained typing fingers.