Taste Trekking

Mile End memories and le bagel

Where else can you find a family-owned Italian cafe, a hipster cocktail lounge, Hasidic Jews walking to synagogue, and a mechanical bull all in the same 5-block radius but Montreal? The city is an ideal blend of North American and European style, spiked with colorful multicultural flair and feisty Quebec nationalism – the perfect conditions for a thriving food and nightlife scene.

Looking back at the 4 years I spent in Montreal as an undergrad student, what stands out most in my mind are the experiences I shared with friends exploring the city and the culinary joys it has to offer: late night poutine and late morning Bagel Etc. brunches, potluck picnics in Parc Jeanne-Mance, lazy afternoons with Portuguese chicken, boisterous dinners at BYOW restaurants on Duluth, Mile End cafe study sessions with coffees and pain au chocolat, homemade paella and sangria nights, waiting in line at Schwartz’s for smoked meat sandwiches, descending upon the free samples at Marché Jean-Talon on weekends, making friends with the bakery around the corner from our Esplanade apartment together with my roommates and getting free leftover bread whenever we passed by on our way home from the bars –

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So when my close college friends and I spent this past weekend in the city, it was pretty much an excuse to revisit our old haunts, trying to fit as many foods and drinks as humanly possible in a 48 hour window. It’s all a blur of Le Cendrillon cheese spreads, local rabbit, bagels and lox, ducks-in-cans, PEI oysters, maple syrup cheesecake, brunch upon brunch… If there’s one place where excess reigns supreme in the middle of winter, it’s Montreal.

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Thanks to my friend Lauren for having the wherewithal to capture this moment at La Banquise amidst fierce fork battling.

In the spirit of nostalgia, I thought I’d share something I wrote back in my McGill days that I was reminded of while walking through the Mile End:

Bagel Wars

Ask an American where the sacred provenance of the bagel lies, “New York City, of course!” will be the answer. Ask a Canadian? Entirely different story.

Just across the border, the bagel is often included among iconic Canadian foods and is occasionally referred to as a national treasure. But, unlike the ubiquitous Canadian bacon and maple syrup, Canada’s bagel allies itself more with the Quebecois city of Montreal and its Jewish neighborhoods than the whole country.

The very name of the prized baked good attests to this specific loyalty – it has been christened the “Montreal bagel” or “Montreal-style bagel” rather than the “Canadian bagel.” Just as (and, to a certain extent, because) it is difficult to reach agreement on the exact history of the iconic food, it is difficult to determine its exact cultural territory. It frequently finds itself at the center of what is often referred to as “bagel wars,” in which bagel appassionatos attempt to stake claims to the baked good and define what it means to be authentic.

Strangely, the Montreal bagel serves as a point of unity and contention among native Montrealers, as citizens join together to fortify their defense against outer threats to the integrity of their city’s bagel. But they are also divided by the internal disputes rooted in the rivalry between the city’s two main bagel factories and, on a more symbolic level, the bagel’s ethnic identity.

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Rue Saint Viateur Ouest.

From the Old Country to the Mile End

For the most part, Montrealers believe making their bagels at home is almost impossible, so the popular conception surrounding their production is that they must be made at special bakeries committed to the traditional method of wood oven baking and honey-water coating (as opposed to the New York version made with salt, boiled in plain water, and baked in a standard oven). In particular, Montrealers champion the Fairmont and St-Viateur bagel factories as the two long-standing locations where the “true” bagel is produced according to the method introduced by Jewish immigrants, and dismiss any other reproductions as inferior knock-offs. Both bakeries are resistant to the notion of standardization, since no two of their hand-made bagels are the same.

Though the exact details of its history both abroad and within Montreal are contested, it is agreed that bagels originate from the Jewish enclaves in the Old Country of Eastern Europe. The introduction of the bagel to Montreal through the early establishment of the Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries, respectively launched in 1919 and 1957 by Jewish entrepreneurs, is generally rooted in the heavy influx of Jewish immigrants who brought their traditional bagel-making technique from Eastern Europe to Montreal during the late nineteenth century, and the consequential development of one of the most traditional Jewish communities in North America.

Montreal’s relatively lax fire code is also cited as a reason for the bagel’s success in the city, since the characteristic wood-burning ovens which ensure the singularity of the Montreal bagel are banned in other cities. Nurtured by a thriving immigrant Jewish community and less stringent regulations, Fairmount and St-Viateur bagel factories were immediately associated with their home city, as they were named after Mile End neighborhood streets rather than their parent Jewish families.

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Inside St-Viateur Bagel.

Vive Montréal

Staking a claim to the baked good, native Montrealers often use a territorial rhetoric when discussing the bagel. The Gazette, for example, refers to the baked good as “ours,” declaring to Toronto: “You’ve got the banks. But we’ve got the bagels.” The Montreal bagel helps unify city natives under a broad, common identity, cursorily patching the divide between Francophone and Anglophone culture.

However, there are also fissures within the seeming unity of the city, like the rivalry between the Fairmount and St-Viateur factories. In the competition between the two bagel sites, authenticity emerges as a key issue, and there is an impulse to ascribe a single location with the status of originality. In the words of Canadian food writer Erin Zimmer, “the two bagelries are only a few blocks apart so picking one doesn’t usually involve convenience—it’s about loyalties.”

Both bagelries were established by Jewish immigrants of Eastern European origins. Fairmount is very much a family operation: everything must meet founder Grandfather Isadore’s standards, and the bakery remains distinctly family business. In contrast, St-Viateur is now owned by Joe Morena, a Southern Italian immigrant whose 45 years of experience makes up for the lack of Jewish family ownership. Purist Montrealers remain staunchly dedicated to whichever bagelry they see as most genuine, and, in either case, the bagel signifies a loyalty to old-school Montreal culture. 

Inside Fairmount Bagel - what to choose?

Inside Fairmount Bagel – what to choose?

Poutine, Tourtière, and…Bagels?

The degree of association of the Montreal bagel with Jewishness is also a point of contention. Together with smoked meat, the bagel is a distinct product and signifier of Jewish Montreal – tellingly, the Fairmount bagelry includes matzo bread on its daily menu. But Montreal’s Jewish community has severely shrunk since the 1970’s, giving way to increasing Portuguese influence in the Mile End neighborhood, where the local synagogue is now a Portuguese community center.  The insistence on sponsoring the authentic Fairmount and St-Viateur bagelries, and, by extension, the traditional methods they embrace, speaks to an agenda of conservation involving the Montreal bagel. The bagelries have become sites of pilgrimage where nostalgic patrons can get a taste of the old Jewish Montreal they used to know.

The Montreal bagel doesn’t solely appeal to those of Jewish descent, though. You are just as likely to come across a hockey jock standing in line for his order at St-Viateur after a night of drinking, since the bagelries are open until the wee hours of the morning.

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Case in point: 3am bagel run.

Interestingly, bagels are very popular amidst the French-Canadian population of Montreal, even though the history of their relationship with Jewish immigrants has been fraught with strife. French-inspired embellishments to the bagel – bagel with feves au lard, bagel with les frites, bagel with les oignons ronds – abound in neighborhood restaurants and cafes, and some people take issue with what they see as a Quebecois appropriation of Jewish culture. Will the Montreal bagel join poutine in the ranks of traditional Quebecois food?

As McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld puts it, “It is not clear whether Francophones register that deli is something Jewish. It’s an adopted cultural item. They can be eating smoked meat and completely disassociate it with Jews. Jews are the crazy ones in black hats, les maudits juifs, and they’ll say it while eating a smoked meat sandwich.” With regards to the bagel, it seems ethnicity can be hard to digest.

Native Montrealers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, share a commitment to the traditional method of preparation that distinguishes their bagel from its puffier New York counterpart. Although it offers Montrealers an opportunity for unity, the masking of the bagel’s Jewish history in favor of a cohesive Montreal identity can be problematic. Ultimately, though, the Montreal bagel’s lack of fixed territory gives it the promising potential to be a bagel of many tastes.

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2 thoughts on “Mile End memories and le bagel

  1. John and Jane Welsh says:

    Hi Cos. We really enjoyed reading your Blogs. We especially enjoyed seeing your picture at age two or thereabouts. Also, can’t get over how much your mom looks like her mom. We took the liberty of forwarding your blog to a few family and friends (with Lauren’s OK). Look forward to reading future editions. All the best.

    John and Jane

    • John and Jane, it is so good to hear from you and to read that you enjoy the posts. I’m honored that you forwarded the blog to family & friends – thank you! It was such a nice surprise to share the drive from Toronto to Kingston with you just a few weeks ago, John. Looking forward to some shared culinary adventures this summer, hopefully in Maine! Lots of love to you both.

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