MONTREAL — On a recent Saturday afternoon in Montreal, tour guide Olivia Maccioni resembles a shepherd tending to her flock.
Walking south on Saint Laurent Boulevard, a major thoroughfare which once divided the city by language (English to the west, French to the east), ethnicity, and class, she leads a group of nine people onto a quiet side street. All are from out of town: seven from the United States, two – my wife and me – from Toronto.
With her black binder in hand, Maccioni then escorts the group into an alleyway, not usually the kind of place included on tourist itineraries.
“We’re walking back here to set the scene of what this area was like in the early 1900s when it was a largely Jewish immigrant neighborhood,” she says, standing at the rear of low-rise residential buildings in the Plateau neighborhood.
“Back then, these were not the style of homes we think of today. These were multi-purpose spaces. Obviously, people lived there but many also housed boarders, and even ran businesses out of their homes. You have to imagine a different sensory experience from today, with lots of food smells as people were pickling things here including fish.”
Maccioni points to one of the buildings.
“Although you’d never know it from what we’re looking at, this is actually where a major Jewish food company began in 1932,” Maccioni recounts. “It’s called Mrs. Whyte’s Pickles and still exists, and everybody in Montreal knows. Oh, and you can take out your pickles now.”
We all reach into the black tote bags we received at the start of the tour a few hours earlier and take out a small paper bag containing a pickle. As we savor it, Maccioni continues her narrative, holding up her binder to show us photocopied old black-and-white pictures.
“Mrs. Whtye’s Pickles was started in this backyard by Sam and Esther Witenoff who came to Montreal from Russia around 1900,” she adds. “While Sam became a door-to-door bread salesman, his wife Esther was pickling at home. She told Sam people loved her pickles and suggested he sell them, too. Initially, he refused, saying his customers wouldn’t buy them.
“Eventually, he yielded and ended up selling more pickles than bread. So she knew. In 1936, they decided to sell just pickles as Mrs. Whyte’s, a diminutive of their last name, and started making them out of their apartment in this building.”
This is but one of many such evocative tales told on the Beyond the Bagel walking tour that brings to life Montreal’s abundant Jewish heritage, especially as it relates to food. Started in 2015 by the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM), trained guides conduct the four-hour tour several times a week in English and once a week in French, from the spring to the fall.
Maccioni, 22, is one of seven (four Jewish, three not) who lead the tours. She does it twice weekly and works in the MJM’s Jewish café. Maccioni moved to Montreal from the US three years ago to study Art History at McGill University and began giving tours last year after completing a week-long food fellowship at the MJM.
Earlier in our tour, on the corner of Fairmount and Clark in the now hip Mile End neighborhood, Maccioni transported us back to another era, giving us a vivid taste, literally and figuratively, of Montreal’s storied Jewish culinary past.
“Has anyone heard of Wilensky’s?” she asks, saying several TV food shows have featured the venerable diner. It also appears in the well-known novel “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” by the late Canadian writer Mordechai Richler and in its movie version.
Before we enter Wilensky’s Light Lunch to sample its legendary sandwich, the Wilensky Special, Maccioni explains it was founded in 1932 by Moe Wilensky who opened its first location nearby on St. Urbain St. before moving – with its original décor – to its current location in 1952. It’s still owned and run by the same family after 85 years and is one of the last remaining old-school deli counters from when the area was populated largely by Eastern European Jewish working class immigrants.
Wilensky began making sandwiches in the 1930s and one in particular – beef bologna and beef salami with mustard on a roll put into a sandwich press – became the famous “Wilensky Special” which each of us would receive.
“You should know you can’t order it without mustard and they’re never going to cut it in half for you, and there are signs indicating that,” adds Maccioni. “Another great thing they do is old fashioned sodas. They make the syrup and then pour seltzer on top.”
Both Wilensky’s time-honored decor and its marquee sandwich made a strong impression on our group.
“It’s crazy that a tradition like that hasn’t just died out,” says Eric Osman, 25, an independent music producer in Philadelphia. “I was impressed by the Wilensky Special. You’d think people would look at it and go, OK, why are we eating this? I love it. It’s so classic, so ridiculous. It’s kind of a phenomenon that it still exists and I love places that are somewhat of a time capsule.”
Another place on the tour that’s a throwback to the past but still very much present is Beauty’s Luncheonette. Known as the Bancroft Snack Bar in 1942 when newlyweds Hymie and Freda Sckolnick bought it, they re-named it after his bowling nickname Beauty. Today, 75 years later, Beauty’s is one of Montreal’s best spots for brunch and Hymie still works there at age 96, along with his son and granddaughter.
When most people hear of Montreal and Jewish food, most think of bagels and smoked meat which have near-iconic status in the city. Predictably, both figure prominently on the tour.
In the first hour, Maccioni takes us to the city’s two most famous purveyors of bagels, St. Viateur and Fairmount, whose longstanding rivalry is part of Montreal lore. Located near each other in Mile End, both are open 24/7, their wood-fired ovens constantly producing bagels.
After giving an historical overview of Montreal bagels, Maccioni describes what sets them apart from New York bagels – the former are hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, lighter, sweeter and smaller than their New York counterparts.
Sometimes it seems as if all Montrealers have an opinion on which bagel – St. Viateur or Fairmount – is better. Having received samples from both, Maccioni asks us to state our preference. It was almost unanimous in favor of Fairmount, which she said was consistent with how her previous groups voted.
The tour attracts more out-of-towners than locals, both Jews (including Israelis) and non-Jews, some familiar with Jewish food, some not.
“We were looking for things to do while in Montreal and as we love food and have always been interested in Jewish food, we figured the tour could be worthwhile,” says Cheryl Lim, 40, a Singapore-born financial advisor who’s lived in Boston since 2000 and was spending the weekend in Montreal with a friend.
“We liked the idea of this tour because it’s rare you get an activity where you learn about food, get to taste it and discover its history and culture. It’s made more interesting by the fact that Montreal has a large Jewish community,” said Lim.
It used to be much larger. Today, Montreal is home to about 90,000 Jews, far less than in its heyday 50 years ago when it was Canada’s largest, most vibrant Jewish community, numbering about 120,000.
With a French-speaking nationalist movement starting in the 1960s, including a small violent faction, demanding sovereignty for Quebec and the election of a “separatist” government in 1976, many businesses and English-speaking residents (including a lot of Jews) left the province due to the political and economic instability. Many moved to Toronto, whose Jewish community is now twice the size of Montreal’s.
Ironically, the main person behind the food tours is not originally Jewish. Katherine Romanow, 32, who grew up in an Italian-Ukrainian home in Montreal, is now in the process of converting to Judaism this year.
“Food is how I was introduced to Judaism,” says Romanow, who describes herself as a Jewish food historian. “To a large degree, it’s how I relate to Judaism.”
After completing an MA at Montreal’s Concordia University in Judaic Studies focusing on Jewish food history, she wanted to create projects through which she could share the subject with people in a fun, accessible way. She co-founded The Wandering Chew in 2013 to celebrate Montreal’s diverse Jewish culinary offerings through “immersive food events” such as pop-up dinners and walking tours.
Beyond the Bagel was the idea of Romanow and Zev Moses, the executive director of the MJM. However, she did the research, wrote the content and was the sole tour guide the first year in 2015.
“Montreal has such a rich Jewish food history, largely unknown by most people,” says Romanow, director of Food Programming at the MJM. “We thought a walking tour would be a great way to teach people about it.”
It is, in ways big and small — such as when Maccioni points out in passing while we walk to our next stop on Saint Laurent Blvd. that the unassuming joint on our right, Bagel Etc., is where the late singer and writer Leonard Cohen, who had a home nearby, often went for breakfast when in town.
Down the street, we pause at a plaque with several old photos showing where Ida Steinberg opened a grocery store 100 years ago that grew into a now-defunct dynasty that changed the way people shopped for groceries in Quebec.
We learn of other formerly thriving businesses now long gone but remembered fondly.
Not all the stops date back to the 20th century or further. Illustrating Montreal’s new generation of Jewish food entrepreneurs — part of what’s referred to as “the new Jewish food movement” — Maccioni took us into Hof Kelsten, a bakery and eatery that also provides its bread to local high-end restaurants.
Owner Jeff Finkelstein opened the business a few years ago, inspired by his grandmother’s baking and cooking. As if we hadn’t already consumed enough carbs, Maccioni gave everyone bialys and rugelach to taste. Among the dishes served there for breakfast and lunch: Israeli favorite, shakshuka.
En route to the final and most exalted of the tour’s 16 food stops, Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, Maccioni showed us the Bagg Street Shul, which opened in 1922 and is the oldest synagogue in Quebec still functioning in its original location.
Just before introducing the group to Schwartz’s, she referred to nearby Moishe’s, one of the city’s oldest and most respected restaurants. Its original name was the Romanian Paradise when Moishe Lighter, a Romanian Jewish immigrant, won it in a poker game in 1938. The venerated steakhouse has been at the same location ever since, now managed by Lighter’s two sons.
True to its reputation, Schwartz’s was packed when we arrived, with a lineup snaking out the door down the sidewalk in front, comprised of many foreign tourists. Fortunately, Maccioni didn’t have to wait outside to get the smoked meat sandwiches to give us.
Founded in 1928 by Reuven Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, it long ago became a Montreal institution, celebrated for its beef brisket cured for 10 days and then steamed according to an old tradition. Although it’s remained at the same location ever since, it’s had various owners over the years. In 2012, Quebec diva Celine Dion and group of other investors bought the business.
Maccioni took the sandwiches to go and guided us across the street to the final destination – the MJM – where we enjoyed the last taste of the tour sitting in its Fletcher’s Café, whose own menu reflects a more diverse Jewish cuisine, offering dishes rooted in both Ashkenzazi and Shephardic traditions.
While steeped in Montreal’s Jewish culinary past, Romanow is upbeat about its future and enduring appeal.
“We have a really exciting new generation of Jewish food businesses opening and I’m excited to see how that’s going to shape the Jewish food scene here,” she says. “It’s also great that the Jewish food institutions that have been around for 80 years are still very relevant to the food scene in Montreal.”
Interestingly, for all its plethora of Jewish food, Montreal offers little in the way of Israeli cuisine, unlike many cities in North America and Europe where it has become increasingly popular.