Safety in a skillet
I had never tried the local delicacy that is Montreal smoked meat, despite having lived in Montreal for seven years. My family used to ask me about it, and I’d pick up stacks of the stuff and deliver it to them. Stacks of red meat, sitting exuberantly between two laughably tiny pieces of bread, with mustard. Why do people eat this? I used to wonder. Regardless, there was always a long line outside of the Montreal smoked meat mainstay Schwartz’s. The turning point came on a recent Sunday after passing out on top of my bed sheets fully clothed and waking up with the inherent need to nurse my hangover.
My partner and I wandered up Stanley to the corner of Saint Catherine, preparing to fight our way through the summer street-sale crowd in order to get to the restaurant. There were three different EDM songs pulsing around us. The windows of Reuben’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, studded with vanity lights, glistened in the distance. We were both so loony and sleep-deprived. Inside, Reuben’s was shockingly clean and large. There were crates of whole smoked briskets and jars of pickled preserves everywhere. We were seated among a sea of patrons belonging to no consistent demographic other than hungry looking.
“This isn’t the place I thought it was,” my partner kept saying. The ambience was peaceful despite the corporate vendors blasting techno inside. Understandably, peak hours at Reuben’s are in the afternoon, when the famous Montreal smoked meat sandwiches are served nonstop. We asked our waiter for the most popular smoked meat breakfast items and ordered the RD Skillet and simply Smoked Meat & Eggs. I leaned back and closed my eyes, wishing that Celine Dion was on the radio. All of a sudden I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about this local delicacy. My partner and I started googling various questions pertaining to Montreal smoked meat at this point, for example: Where was the first delicatessen? What spices were used? What is a brisket?
I started touching my collarbone near my shoulder blade, feeling around for some evolutionary trace marks of the “brisket.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “What even is that muscle?”
He googled something about the cow pectoral.
“Because cows don’t have collarbones,” he began. I couldn’t tell if he was explaining this because I was naïve or if he was actually reading it off the internet. “The muscle supports over 40 percent of the cow’s body weight.”
I looked at the vacuum-sealed pieces of meat in the window, imagining them being crushed by other body parts, and then expanding, and then stabilizing. I let out a little sigh of awe, feeling vaguely unworthy of this power. The food arrived and my eyes widened. The skillet, embedded in a small wooden board, was sizzling around the edges. It looked like a hideous, disgusting mash, but I knew it wasn’t going to taste like one. As for the classic dish, I was relieved to see that the proportion of meat was manageable, much smaller than what’s in the sandwiches. Five delicate flanks of smoked meat sat gently in the center of an otherwise traditional breakfast: eggs, home fries, fresh fruit, and a basket of rye toast in the middle of the table.
Quickly I discovered why people go crazy for Montreal smoked meat. Its tender pepperiness leaves you starry-eyed from the explosions of flavor. These are the kinds of things in Montreal that make me want to cry. I was so thankful for what went into this breakfast. The skillet was so decadent: It had home fries as a base, covered in a layer of caramelized onions, sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese, bits of smoked meat balanced throughout, and two perfect eggs over-easy sitting on top.
When the waiter came around again I bombarded him with questions about Reuben’s, and he answered them all, seeming calm and well-rehearsed, as if this were a common thing. Then we asked him where the beef was from, and he said, “Oh, I can’t tell you that. It’s a big secret.”
My partner and I laughed. “Big secret,” we repeated.
“No, seriously,” he said. “The smoked meat competition in Montreal is—”
“IT’S 2016,” I wanted to shout.
The waiter also humored my curiosity about the building. He clarified that the restaurant we were sitting in was actually a separate entity from the original Reuben’s, which is just east on Saint Catherine’s Street.
“I told you this wasn’t the right place,” my partner said.
The original Reuben’s opened in 1976, in a basement underneath an extinct Capital Theatre, just west of Place-des-Arts and nestled in between rows of strip clubs. The first Rueben’s is operating in parallel with the latest steakhouse-inspired restaurant (which was the one we were in). The original interior is still intact, with its Tiffany stained glass ceiling, mahogany wall and brass railings. It’s worth mentioning that in order to commercialize Montreal smoked meat, and in the middle-class sit-down framework, a restaurant owner must be confident about the volume of its clientele. Because the brisket is steamed and sliced by hand to order, it must be in a relatively high-traffic environment, or else it risks feigning authenticity.
While the exact origin of Montreal smoked meat isn’t known, Eastern European immigrants can be attributed to its existence in North America. Essentially: Farm families figured out that variations of an ancient pickling recipe could be applied to smoked meat with grace. At the turn of the 20th century, immigrants started selling their smoked meat recipes in markets around Montreal and New York, and the sandwich format facilitated the billowing industrial landscape. In fact, the sandwich itself can be traced back to the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who apparently hated to take breaks while gambling. Brunch, in contrast, is notoriously the laziest meal ever, and to be honest, I’m surprised smoked meat and eggs hasn’t really caught on as much in other restaurants. It was a really nice alternative to bacon or sausage, and for someone who can appreciate the density of flavor in smaller portions, it’s definitely a good way to experience Montreal smoked meat for the first time. I would argue that the purity of the presentation makes it that much more resonant.